New Yorkers can argue anywhere with video hearings

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York has decided to expand its
pilot video system linking the court in Manhattan to remote sites on the circuit.


The videoconferencing demonstration began in October 1996. Second circuit judges have
heard arguments from court sites in Albany and Mineola, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., and
even from a copy center outside Rochester, N.Y.


The video has worked so smoothly in the courtroom routine that attorneys can call the
morning of a scheduled hearing to let a deputy know they will be arguing from a remote
site.


“You shouldn’t have to change the way you do things” to add video, said
Joel Turner, the court’s information systems manager.


Courts are turning to video hearings to save time and travel. According to the
Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, at least 51 federal courts early this year were
using or planning to use video.


There is even official endorsement for putting more circuit into circuit courts. The
Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 requires that federal courts try to use telephone,
video or other telecommunications methods so that prisoners need not be transported to
court to testify.


The Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the federal
judiciary, has authorized videoconferencing in prisoner civil rights cases. The rules of
procedure were amended in 1996 to allow video in civil trials. But questions of fairness
linger in some areas.


“There is no judiciarywide policy endorsing or prohibiting the use of
videoconferencing in judicial proceedings,” Philip Argetsinger of the Administrative
Office’s administration policy staff wrote in a report on video in the courtroom.


Argetsinger’s report said the ninth circuit has ruled that videoconferencing
arraignments violate the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which require the
defendant’s presence in open court.


Appellate courts are the best situated for video, because their proceedings consist
primarily of oral arguments on points of law, without juries, witnesses or exhibits. But
only three of the 51 video-enabled courts listed by the Administrative Office are appeals
courts. Forty are district courts that hear trials.


The Judicial Conference’s Committee on Defender Services also has raised concerns
about the fairness of videoconferencing in criminal trials.


For nontrial proceedings and civil cases, however, video is gaining acceptance. Eight
bankruptcy courts are using it, and the Administrative Office has concluded it is a good
fit for them.


So far, U.S. courts’ videoconferencing arrangements have little uniformity. Some
courts lease or rent equipment for one-time events, some use roll-about systems and some
have installed room systems. Most if not all such equipment follows the international
H.320 standard for compatibility with other vendors’ equipment.


When the Second Circuit began looking for a videoconferencing system in late 1995, it
had three requirements. The system had to be unobtrusive in the historic courtroom, it had
to be simple and it had to be reliable.


The three-judge panel could not hear arguments over a single-camera, single-monitor
system.


The Second Circuit selected contractor CCC Inc. of New York, which customizes its
proprietary software for its own and other vendors’ hardware. CCC’s Freevision
system has a hub that serves the coder-decoder, video switches, mixers, inverse
multiplexers and connections to outside lines.


Freevision extends audio-visual equipment off the hub and connects to the switches via
unshielded twisted-pair wiring. In the Second Circuit, one of the extensions is the
courtroom system and a second extension is a deputy’s station.


Three wall-mounted, pan-tilt-zoom cameras focus on the judges. A bench-mounted camera
focuses on attorneys appearing in the courtroom.


Video images of an attorney speaking in the courtroom travel to remote sites and are
displayed on two 32-inch monitors visible to the courtroom gallery. Spectators see the
attorney’s face rather than the back of the head.


Conversely, an attorney at a remote site appears on the gallery monitors as well as on
a 27-inch monitor in front of the judges’ bench. Each judge also has a personal,
5-inch LCD screen embedded in the bench.


Attorneys at remote sites address a rear-projection screen. Images from the three
courtroom cameras are combined by mixers so that the judges, who sit as much as 15 feet
apart, appear side by side on screen.


The deputy’s system consists of a PC with video card and audio headset. The deputy
makes the video calls and usually controls the equipment. The cost for a similar but
simpler setup at a remote site is about $25,000. The Second Circuit’s courthouse
system was more expensive, officials said.


Remote sites dial into a Sprint Corp. network. In its original form, the Second
Circuit’s system transmitted 384 Kbps, which Turner said was at the low end for
acceptable conferencing.


“The video is fine,” he said. “But we noticed a slight delay in the
audio portion.”


Now the court will bump transmission up to 768 Kbps and gain some fault tolerance. The
inverse multiplexer and codec will slow down transmission if errors occur but will not
drop a connection unless the rate dips below 384 Kbps.  

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