Aside from weddings and adoptions, a visit to D.C. Superior Court can often be met with anxiety or apprehension. In hopes of easing that angst, courthouse executives have instituted a new wave of technology upgrades that they hope will make life for courthouse users and visitors a little easier.
On Monday, the court is set to publicly launch a new website that officials say will allow users not only to search for information on cases but also view some documents from court files. Users will even be able to toggle to view the screens in Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean, officials said.
The new search system is the culmination of a series of changes that began early this year when the court started a phone system that allows prospective jurors to call in the night before their jury duty begins to determine if they are needed, instead of traveling downtown and waiting to find out.
Another change inside the Moultrie Courthouse on Indiana Avenue was made last week when an illuminated board known as the Docketron, 5 feet tall and 36 feet wide, was unveiled in the main lobby.
The $170,000 board lists each case to be heard that day, the courtroom number and the judge’s name. Previously, smaller boards listed only the judge and courtroom, not the cases to be heard.
The new technology was driven by the new chief judges: Robert E. Morin, named chief judge of D.C. Superior Court last year, and Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, who became chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals this year.
Blackburne-Rigsby said she and Morin focused on finding technology for the courthouse that would enable users, whether in the courthouse or outside the building, to have greater access.
“Our vision was greater access to the court and ensure access to justice to all court users,” she said in a recent interview. The new website and jury system are part of an effort to “be more sensitive to people’s time,” she said.
The call-in system for prospective jurors addresses one of the biggest complaints court officials hear: hours wasted by residents whose services aren’t needed on juries.
Other courthouses, including the District’s federal court and courts in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and Alexandria, already have such a system.
In the District, would-be jurors are summoned to court six weeks in advance, with enough people called to ensure juries can be seated for all the scheduled trials. But trials can be delayed or cases resolved at the last minute by a plea or settlement.
Before the call-in system started, dozens of D.C. residents spent the day sitting in the jury waiting room or in the hallway outside, waiting to be called to a courtroom.
Some spent the entire day waiting, only to be dismissed to go home.
Each prospective juror on civil or criminal cases can now call after 5 p.m. the day before to find out if they must report. Those who don’t have to are excused from jury duty for another two years or so.
“It’s not a perfect system,” says Judge Lynn Leibovitz, presiding judge of the court’s criminal division. “But, hopefully, it’s a more responsive system for jurors.”
“The goal is to do a better job at predicting how many people will we use each day,” added Judge Milton C. Lee, deputy presiding judge of the division.
Since the phone-in system was launched in January, about 4,720 jurors who called in the evening before have been told their services were not required, Leibovitz said.
The numbers of people being “called off” from jury duty after phoning in has increased over the months. In July, 1,428 people were thanked for their service and told they were not needed, Lee said. That’s up from 131 in January.
The court has been trying to figure out such a system for more than a decade but struggled to implement it, given the hundreds of jury cases heard each year, Lee said.
“Having people sitting around, waiting all day here to see if they are going to be used, just won’t occur again,” Lee said.
The number for prospective jurors to call after 5 p.m. on the evening they are scheduled to appear is 202-879-4604.
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.