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July 15, 2011
Judge Gerald Tjoflat, right, and Chris Leach

JUDGE GERALD TJOFLAT of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals was one of 31 federal judges who shared his knowledge with lawyers, including Chris Leach, left, at the Federal Judicial Roundtable at the Bar’s Annual Convention in Kissimmee. Some of the discussion revolved around technology in the courtroom, what it means for the future of the profession, and how it can help and hinder transparency and professionalism. One area of modern communication that appears to have both attorneys and judges scratching their heads is social media. Sites like Twitter and Facebook have become popular forums for attorneys, and many courts have begun to use the sites as a way to disseminate information.
Technology, social media leave participants all atwitter
Federal Judicial Roundtable delves into the technological revolution

By Annie Butterworth Jones
Associate Editor

It’s not often a roomful of prestigious judges and attorneys — including some of the best legal minds in the state — begins to light up with talk of tweets and blogs, Wi-Fi and Facebook followers.

But at this year’s Federal Judicial Roundtable at the Bar Annual Convention, 31 federal judges opened up about technology in the courtroom, what it means for the future of the profession, and how it can help and hinder transparency and professionalism.

The nearly two-hour session, sponsored by the Bar’s Federal Court Practice Committee and led by Chair Patty Barksdale, produced animated and intense conversations around the 16 tables packed full of Florida attorneys. Former ABA President Sandy D’Alemberte moderated the discussion.

Topics included cameras in the courtroom and the impact of new media — like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — on the legal profession. Interest was especially high since down the road from the convention location, cameras were rolling in the Orange County Courthouse as the Casey Anthony murder trial continued its proceedings.

“Allowing cameras in the courtroom is taking access to the courts to its natural conclusion in that anyone — with certain exceptions — can walk into the courtroom, sit down, and watch the proceedings,” said Ft. Lauderdale lawyer Stefanie Moon.

“Our concern was that there was the possibility of having very serious and solemn courtroom proceedings sensationalized and downgraded to reality television.”

Barbara Junge, an attorney with the U.S. district court in Miami, agreed.

“When you watch something like Casey Anthony, it’s not just that you see the real data. You don’t just see the judge and the lawyers; you have to listen to the talking heads afterwards. And part of the problem with the video broadcasting of trials is that all of these so-called experts you have are there offering opinions that really are representing their own biases. . . .”

But, pointed out Linda Greenhouse, a New York Times reporter, senior research scholar in law at Yale, and special guest at the roundtable discussion, an increase in technology also allows for more transparency and provides a greater education to the public on what function the court system actually performs.

“Judge Dubina [of the U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit] was telling me about the audio of the healthcare argument that his circuit put out, and he made the observation that a lot of a case like that has to do with … issues that the ordinary person wouldn’t care that much about; they’d be baffled by it.

“It’s so useful and so important for ordinary people who might go on their computer and listen to the C-SPAN audio and say, you know, wait a minute there’s a lot of stuff here. Federal cases don’t just fall out of the sky. There are rules; there are procedures,” said Greenhouse.

“There’s so little understanding of what the public — as you all know as well as I do — knows about how cases are generated, how they get to the courts. The ability of people to actually confront and to have their expectations a little bit unsettled by actually hearing a judicial argument has got to be valuable.”

Discussion also covered lawyer-to-lawyer communication, prompted by a series of emails Barksdale shared with the audience in which a young lawyer turned down a position at a law firm, eventually ending the emails with “blah blah blah.”

The emails inspired Judge Donald Graham, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, to lead his table in a conversation about civility — or a lack thereof — among attorneys.

In the Southern District, attorneys are required to take their disputes before a magistrate judge. According to Graham, more often than not, those issues, which frequently have to do with discovery disputes, suddenly disappear. In fact, Graham said that since the requirement has been instituted, no dispute hearings have been held.

Federal judges addressed the increasing presence of Wi-Fi capabilities in the courtroom, which, with the passage of e-filing and e-service rules, would help attorneys access necessary case files and information from their computers inside the courtroom. Judge Adalberto Jordan, from the U.S. district court in Miami, and Judge “Skip” Dalton, from the U.S. district court in Jacksonville, shared different perspectives on the topic: Judge Jordan’s courtroom in Miami does have Wi-Fi, while Judge Dalton’s does not.

“One thing they can have is attorneys get pretty preoccupied with their Wi-Fi access and perhaps paying more attention to their computer and communicating by the computer in the courtroom than perhaps the proceedings, which was an interesting observation,” said Robert Griscti, a sole practitioner in Gainesville and a participant at Judge Jordan’s table.

D’Alemberte, the former president of Florida State University, said that he had seen the same problem take place in the classroom.

“Go in a classroom in universities today, and you’re giving a lecture, and the students are just busy at their computers. You’re just quite sure that they’re taking down all of these serious notes, and it turns out that they’re shopping or playing bridge or learning new dance steps,” said D’Alemberte to laughter. “Media isn’t always what it appears to be.”

One area of modern communication that appears to have both attorneys and judges scratching their heads is social media. Sites like Twitter and Facebook have become popular forums for attorneys, and many courts, including the Florida Supreme Court, have begun to use the sites as a way to more quickly disseminate information. But attorneys and judges just aren’t sure the trend will last.

After all, asked Pamela Cichon, a St. Petersburg lawyer: “What attorney can say anything in 140 characters?”

Still, the consensus among participants was clear: Technology isn’t going anywhere any time soon. And New York Times reporter Greenhouse told panelists that’s a good thing.

“I have to think that better understanding leads to better citizens, leads to greater appreciation of the role of the courts in our system. . . . As a citizen and a journalist, I’m really very pleased to see the receptivity that’s growing among the judiciary to get the message out through all the channels of communication that are now available to us.”

[Revised: 10-21-2014]