Reflections from a Newly Retired Judge

(Or, “Zoom Court” – You Have Got To Be Joking!”)

by Senior Judge Linda Cowen, State Court of Clayton County

As I settle into retirement after 27 years on the State Court bench in Clayton County, I have been reflecting on those years. This week, my first week of retirement, I have intentionally been practicing JOMO (Joy of Missing Out; feeling content with staying in and disconnecting as a form of self-care).  I didn’t know that I was practicing JOMO, until a friend posted a meme about it on Facebook, and I had an “aha moment”. That got me reflecting on the fact that I am, according to my son, an “old person” because I post a lot on Facebook. Also, until recently, I did not know what a “meme” was (and I do not promise that I actually know now). That got me reflecting on technology in general, and how much things have changed, and are changing, in our court system. So, this “old codger” (at least according to my son), thought I would share my reflections on the advances in technology over 27 years of judging, and 37 years of lawyering.

My husband has always been a lover of technology. When I joined my husband in his law practice after graduating from law school in 1985, we had two Tandy TRS-1000 Radio Shack computers. We had the top of the line, with 640K RAM, and color graphics!  We were also using our advanced IBM Selectric typewriters, with the little rotating ball rather than individual keys, to create some of our pleadings and letters. We had “typing class” in high school, rather than “keyboarding”, and my son has never used a typewriter. We kept legal files in file folders, in a file cabinet, and had a very helpful index card system for our clients and the opposing party in each case, so that we could avoid conflicts. We kept our appointment calendar and court calendar in an appointment book. It all worked beautifully for many years.

In 1995, when I took office as a judge, the State Court of Clayton County was mostly operating on paper. We had a case management database that tracked cases, and the Clerk’s docket was on it, but the case files were still on paper, in file folders, stored in wall-sized file racks in the Clerk’s office. The older files were boxed and shipped off to a storage building somewhere in the county (I have visions of the treasure room at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), after they were captured on microfilm for easy access in the future. When you printed an image from microfilm, it printed on paper that came off of the printer wet and curling, an odd brown color, like a limp banana peel.

We had multi-part, carbonless, fill in the blank, check-box forms for sentencing in criminal cases (white – original; yellow- Solicitor; pink – Defendant; goldenrod – Sheriff). All of the judges and our administrative assistants had a computer, and our administrative assistant had an IBM Selectric typewriter for typing envelopes and filling out forms. We made copies on a copy machine for anything that did not come in a carbonless, multi-part form. We mailed stuff by U.S.P.S. mail. We did not e-mail anyone, and we did not have instant messaging to communicate with our staff or fellow judges. We simply picked up a phone, one with a cord, and called, or walked down the hall to talk with someone in person. Court reporters had machines with two tape-decks, one for their feed, and one for a back-up feed, on which they recorded proceedings, including death penalty trials in Superior Court, on cassette tapes. It all worked beautifully for many years.

Over time, with the assistance of a technology department that Clayton County was forward-thinking enough to create, and because our Chief Judge, Harold Benefield, was also a lover of technology, the State Court started to move away from paper. The case management system, still in use today, was on an IBM AS/400 computer (I’m sure it’s been upgraded over the years, but that’s what we still call it). I know, I know, some computer nerds out there are laughing, aghast that we are still on that system.  A cloud-based case management system is being designed and built as we speak, in large part because the county cannot find any programmers to hire to keep the existing system up to date. I’m here to tell you, though, that we created, over many years, a case management system on that AS/400 that is amazing. The Sheriff, including the jail, the Clayton County Police Department, the Clerks for the Magistrate Court, the State Court and the Superior Court, share all important information on that one database. The benefits of that information sharing are boundless. This case management system has worked beautifully for many years.

Now, the State Court of Clayton County is paperless. All pleadings in civil cases, including the judge’s orders, are e-filed or scanned into the database. There are no paper file folders, and no racks of sliding file cabinets in the Clerk’s office. There are no bins of traffic tickets in the Traffic Violations Bureau. There is no need to microfilm anything, as all of the documents are imaged forever, and can be printed onto actual paper, crisp as a new dollar bill. Accusations in criminal cases are generated electronically, and filed electronically. Traffic tickets are generated in the police vehicle on a laptop, and then filed electronically with the Clerk. The sentence on every criminal and traffic case can be generated electronically and filed electronically. The next step will be to create a plea statement for a defendant to sign electronically in court, but that is in the works (now, it’s on paper, signed by everyone in court, and scanned by the Clerk). The court reporters record the proceedings on a laptop, with a feed from every microphone in the courtroom, and their own feed, all to be stored digitally for future reference or for production of transcripts when needed.

The pandemic has forced all of us in the judiciary to move rapidly and creatively into the world of court technology. No one would have envisioned Zoom or WebEx court before we had no choice but to do so (well, we might have given it some thought, sort-of in a joking, “let’s be like the Jetsons” way, but not seriously working through how to do it). Most traffic courts were not moving toward online dispute resolution platforms, but many have now done so. Oral arguments in the appellate courts would not have moved to video platforms, I imagine, until forced to do so.

While the pitfalls of video court were many, including sights that are difficult to wipe from my personal memory, like the woman who forgot to turn off her camera and proceeded to change clothes like a weird strip-tease exhibit during court, or the dude smoking a bong of something while driving down the road during his court appearance, or the woman who took a break from her actual job as a strip-tease dancer for her brief (ahem) court appearance, the mere fact that we could continue to have court from wherever we happened to be while the world was shut down is quite amazing to contemplate. In conversations with other judges, the consensus is that many types of court will remain as video proceedings, such as oral argument on civil motions or pre-trial or status conferences with attorneys, for the convenience of everyone involved.

We have to be aware, as we move forward, that when technology fails, we now have to have a plan for how to proceed without it. Our county network stops working more often than we like. We have to be able to generate a criminal sentence on paper, copy it, and keep going, when that happens. We have to have an option for people who do not have access to the internet for e-filing or video appearances, or when these processes stop working from time to time on our end. Emergency management has to include plans for what happens when the technology fails, or we doom ourselves to another level of panicked, creative thinking in the midst of another type of crisis in the future. Institutional memories of “how we used to do it” will fade, so perhaps the time to do so is now, before all of us “old codgers” forget how well things worked for all of those years.

Twenty-seven years from now, a newly retired judge, reflecting on their own journey, will be looking back on the way that we do things now, and wondering at the inefficiency of it all. Won’t that be something.

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