William and Mary Law School

Courtroom 21 to Use Technology to Provide Equal Access to the Courts for People with Disabillities

The Courtroom 21 Project at the Law School will test its state-of-the-art technologies April 1 during a lab trial designed to provide equal courtroom access to persons with disabilities.

Many of the trial’s participants – including the judge, counsel, witnesses and jurors – have special needs such as hearing, mobility or sight impairments. During the trial, the Courtroom 21 Project will experiment with different types of technology, which is intended to assist the participants with disabilities.

The case is expected to be significant in light of the country’s aging population, said professor Fred Lederer, director of the Courtroom 21 Project, a joint initiative of the Law School and the National Center for State Courts. The lab trial will be begin at 9 a.m. in the Law School’s McGlothlin Courtroom, which is the world’s most technologically advanced trial and appellate courtroom.

“The aging baby boomers will simply intensify the already critical need to assist peoples with special needs when they must go to court or a legal hearing,” Lederer said. “Assistive technology can be miraculous. The goal of our experimental trial is to see what works and where improvements are needed.”

The lab trial’s simulated case, United States v. Culinary Enterprise of America d/b/a Mom’s Place, is centered around a lawsuit brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) against a fictional fast food restaurant chain. The trial is designed to test how assistive technology can be used in giving equal access to justice for judges, lawyers, witnesses, and jurors who have special needs in the areas of mobility, sight, and hearing.

The case stems from Frank Horton, who uses a wheelchair, attempting to take his blind daughter, Jesse, to dinner at Mom’s Place. In addition to the wheelchair, Horton has a service dog named Ben to warn him of pending grand mal seizures. When they arrive at the fast food chain, Horton discovers that the design of the restaurant makes it almost impossible to enter the restaurant and get to the order counter. The restaurant staff refuses entry to Ben after discovering that he is not a “seeing-eye” dog and Jesse discovers that there are no Braille menus. Subsequent inquiries to the corporate headquarters prove that the chain has purposely neglected to accommodate the needs of some customers with disabilities, considering it too expensive and time-intensive for staff and disruptive to other customers.

After the Hortons filed suit, the United States Attorney General intervened pursuant to the ADA and took over the case. The trial will be conducted as if it were being heard in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Although this case is based on fictional elements, it will be tried realistically with many of its participants having a variety of disabilities that would make their participation in a trial or hearing difficult. For example, the trial judge is the Honorable Lynn J. Karowsky, chief judge of Weld County Court in Colorado, who is losing his sight due to macular degeneration. In addition, the first known use of a Segway Transporter to allow counsel with mobility limitations to travel about the courtroom and argue the case to the jury will take place.

This experiment is being conducted with the support of numerous companies and organizations including the Disability Rights Section of the Department of Justice, The American Foundation for the Blind, and the WGBH Media Access Group.

The Courtroom 21 Project is an ongoing international demonstration and experimental effort which seeks to determine how technology can best improve all components of the legal system. In 2003, for example, Courtroom 21’s lab trial involved an al Qaeda financing case in which three courts met to determine the admissibility of the testimony of a potential attorney witness.

In 2004, Courtroom 21 tested an international construction contract mediation with participants in four nations meeting together via modern technology. Last year, the lab trial conducted a simulated trial that allowed two judges in separate countries to simultaneously hear a child abduction case as part of an effort to develop a protocol for resolving multi-jurisdictional issues of international cases.

Journalists are invited to observe the case. Space is limited and media interested in attending should reserve seats as early as possible by calling Tammi Flythe at (757) 221-7720 or emailing Lsflyt@wm.edu or Brian Whitson at (757) 221-7876 or emailing bwwhit@wm.edu.