Members of Law Faculty to Serve on Judicial Futures Commission

What will society look like in 10-15 years, and how can Virginia courts adapt to meet its needs?

On Oct. 6, Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell, Sr., charged a group of more than 100 lawyers, educators and business people from across the state with looking into the future and finding an answer.

The group, called "The Commission on Courts in the 21st Century - To Benefit All, to Exclude None," is divided into five task forces: Judicial Functions, Structure of the Judiciary, Technology and Science, Judicial Administration and Public and the Courts. Each task force will use statistical data and public opinion polls to predict future trends and challenges Virginia courts might face. Then, after public hearings on their findings are held next summer, task force members will draft recommendations and deliver them to the Chief Justice in October of 2006.

With two faculty members heading up task forces and two more involved in subcommittees, the William & Mary Law School is set to contribute much to the commission. Cutler Professor Jayne W. Barnard, who has been with the Law School since 1985 and currently teaches courses in business associations and securities regulation, was selected to lead the Public and the Courts task force. Judge Walter S. Felton of the Virginia Court of Appeals, who joined the William & Mary faculty in 1982, has since directed the Trial Advocacy Program and served as the College's Legislative Counsel, and currently teaches trial advocacy as an adjunct professor, will chair the Structure of the Judiciary task force. Chancellor Professor Fredric I. Lederer, who directs the Courtroom 21 Project at the Law School, and Professor Emeritus John E. Donaldson will serve on task force subcommittees, contributing expertise in technology and trusts and estates, respectively.

Virginia became the first state in the U.S. to conduct a futures commission in 1987, when it released a report anticipating increased use of alternative dispute resolution and more reliance on technology, among other things. According to Barnard, the 1987 commission's work allowed Virginia courts to adapt to changes and "stay ahead of the curve," and she hopes this year's commission will do the same.

"I think it's a great honor to have the opportunity to contribute to something we hope will be as useful to the courts as the last one was," Barnard said.

Barnard's task force will address how courts can better serve the public - from public outreach and education to access for the disabled and the development of a more user-friendly Web site. Because of a predicted increase in pro se litigants, her group will consider ways to make it easier for a nonlawyer to see a case through from beginning to end without making too many demands on courthouse personnel.

Improvements could include drafting more readable court forms, or the possibility of offering child care or weekend hours in courthouses.

"An interesting part of the commission's work is the opportunity to think creatively. Will we need virtual courthouses? Will judges need blogs?" Barnard said. "Who knows - but it's challenging to think about."

Professional staff from the National Center for State Courts, headquartered in Williamsburg, will play a role in making futures predictions in areas like political trends, diversity, respect for law and the public's willingness to help with court funding, Barnard said. In addition, graduate research fellows Christoper J. Toepp '07 and Brent M. Dougal '07 are currently conducting background research for Barnard.

Felton said his task force is set to look at how Virginia's courts will be structured in the future. Using projected trends in areas like commerce, technology and medical advancements, one task will be to determine whether specialty courts - trained specifically in medicine or business, for example - will be needed to adjudicate complex issues. Ideas for specialty courts are currently developing in family law and drug courts, as well as therapeutic jurisprudence, Felton said.

"If such specialty courts do develop, should there also be specialty appellate courts?" Felton said. "Should there be jury trials in the specialty courts, and if so, should they be drawn from people with defined education and backgrounds? These few examples are but a smattering of what the task force I chair will be pondering."

While he hasn't yet made a formal request for research assistance, Felton said he, like Barnard, hopes to enlist the help of William & Mary law students.

Donaldson, who will serve on a subcommittee for the Judicial Functions task force, said his group is charged with examining the role of courts and court-appointed officers in the probate system. One focus will be the oversight of court-appointed fiduciaries, such as guardians or trustees. Other subcommittees of Judicial Functions will discuss the roles substitute judges and commissioners in chancery might play, as well as how the licensing and disciplining of attorneys could be different in the future.

"I am honored to have been asked to serve, and to have the privilege of working with so many able attorneys in looking to the future of Virginia's judicial system," Donaldson said.