The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Given the eclectic mix of disciplines and emphases involved, including STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), sociology, history, psychology, ergonomics, and art, to name a few, architects quite naturally have an almost unique perspective on the subject of Change and Continuity. And that perspective turns out to be highly relevant to the theme of this December’s e-Courts 2016 Conference; namely, how courts can deal with the accelerating rate of change for which technology is a major causal factor.
Recently, I had the opportunity at a party to chat with a young graduate student studying to become an architect. My young friend has no formal legal training; but does have a solid undergraduate background in architecture, in addition to his current graduate studies. I mentioned a piece I wrote a couple years ago about the interest of architects in how to design for the courthouses of the future.
As it happens, my young friend himself has an interest in and has done some work regarding the architecture of courthouses. He shared with me that he had recently authored a paper in which he presented a pretty harsh critique of one of the relatively new (within the past ten years) courthouses nearby. I asked him, in layman’s terms, what he saw as the problem. His response, I believe, highlights an important principle that those of us involved with court technology should – but do not always – keep clearly in mind.
The shortcomings, he said, were not at all functional. As an office building, the courthouse was fine. The problem, he said, was that it was really just that: An office building. It could have housed any office-centric business. To an observer who had no idea what the building was, there was nothing to indicate, internally or externally in its architecture, that it was a courthouse.
That comment surprised me more than a little bit. Not because I disagreed with it (I know that courthouse); but because he, as an architect, thought it important.
I generally have to “tone down” my evangelical impulses to try to explain what I see as the fundamental power of the concept of an independent, robust judicial system. When I can’t contain those impulses, I at best bore, and more often probably irritate people by pointing out that there are really, really good reasons why judges typically sit higher than everyone else; why everyone rises when the judge enters; why only those “admitted” or with permission may “pass the bar”, and so on. But I went through the Law School Indoctrination; I don’t usually encounter non-lawyers or non-court folks who really give those things much thought.
Well, it turns out architects (at least some of them, including my friend) understand that the design and architecture of a courthouse has an importance beyond basic functionality. There is an importance in having people feel, however subliminally, that the courthouse is an institution of justice, solemnity, fairness, and truth, critical to the well-being of a free society.
I hope we folks who bring and work with technology in the courts make it a point to keep these values in mind. I think of the number of times that I have dealt with, discussed, or done business with technology providers who, however experienced in their own domains, have little or no experience in working with courts. At first, THEY JUST DON’T GET IT. But there it is: Courts ARE different.
As I participate in “Futures” discussions and planning, I find one exercise particularly worthwhile in this regard. Futures planning naturally attempts to predict what will change. But it helps to also identify what WILL NOT change. In the future there may be hover cars and controllable weather; but couples will still meet, fall in love, and try to live happily ever after. Teenagers may communicate with their friends through electronic tattoos; but they’ll still be terminally embarrassed by their parents.
All information may some day be digital; all communication may be wireless and instantaneous. But there will still be need for a strong judicial system; and the technology we bring must support that institution.