Super Courts for Super Cases


Within a beige modular building across the street from the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana lie what officials are hailing as the most technologically advanced courtrooms in the state and the future battleground for the county's most complicated and time-consuming lawsuits.

Built over two years using a state grant, the courtrooms are "paperless": lawyers will display exhibits using PowerPoint computer software and challenge witnesses with quick video playback of their testimony. Transcripts will flow from the court reporter's hands to television monitors, using software that transcribes the notes into English.

Where once lawyers and court officials struggled with boxes of documents and bulky projectors, now compact discs can be slipped into an attorney's laptop computer and the same information displayed before a jury on wide-screen monitors.

The five-courtroom facility was designed to deal with complex civil cases--lawsuits that involve numerous parties, storerooms of evidence, squads of lawyers, and years of courtroom time. Such cases have sapped the energy and resources of already burdened courthouses throughout the state, and the judiciary is scrambling to cope with their growth.

Court officials say the Santa Ana facility is the model for future courtrooms.

"We're looking at a number of ways of dealing with the situation, and technology like this is one of them," said Lynn Holton, a spokeswoman for the Judicial Council of California. "Courts are having a huge challenge keeping up with their regular workload as it is."

Workers are still finishing the Civil Complex Center, which will open in early August. During a preview Friday, officials estimated that the gadgetry and special design would move cases along 20% faster than in older, traditional courtrooms.

"Everybody is very excited about these new courtrooms," said Orange County Superior Court Judge William F. McDonald. "The lawyers are just chafing at the bit to get in here."

Included in the new facility are computer displays that allow lawyers and witnesses to draw and illustrate over exhibits. The judge's bench and chambers are also wired into the computer-video system, so that jurists can flip a kill switch from the bench if something is presented that should not be seen by the jury.

The courtrooms are also larger, to accommodate up to 60 lawyers at a time. They have panic buttons that alert sheriff's deputies to problems and judge's benches lined with the bullet-resistant fabric Kevlar.

The nondescript, one-story court facility on Flower Street once housed federal courtrooms, but has been vacant for two years. The county and the Orange County Superior Court have paid $2.25 million for the refurbishment.

One of the reasons the cost is modest, officials said, is that a private company installed the courtroom technology for free. Lawyers who use it will pay the firm, Doar, Inc., based in Rockville Center, N.Y., $550 a day to rent the equipment.

In traditional courtrooms, evidence boxes and power cords for television monitors often create safety hazards. In one complex litigation case, McDonald said, there were so many boxes of evidence that the building supervisor worried that the floor might collapse.

"We're getting rid of much of the clutter and junk that just isn't safe," said McDonald, who supervises the work at the new center.

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