Court program to hear cases that specialize in technology

Judges steep themselves in topics and inventions

January 19, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Judge John F. Fader II shows pictures of his baby granddaughter on his Hewlett-Packard laptop - a computer the 61-year-old bought for his Baltimore County chambers because he felt the Circuit Court-issued Dells were not up to his speed.

Next door, Judge Lawrence R. Daniels, 55, dictates a document onto his computer through the voice-recognition Dragon NaturallySpeaking software, a skill at which he became so adept his secretary was starting to get worried.

And down the hall, Judge Michael J. Finifter, a 45-year-old former state lawmaker who sponsored technology legislation while in the House of Delegates, sits in front of his certified public accountant certificate.

These three Baltimore County judges, self-described left-brainers all, are at the forefront of the Maryland judiciary's efforts to adapt to what legal and business experts expect will be a growing number of complicated - some might say mind-numbing - technology and accounting cases going through the court system.

Fader, Daniels and Finifter, along with a handful of other judges in the state's largest counties, have volunteered to preside over the Circuit Court's newly created Business/Tech- nology Case Management Program, a system designed to deal with such litigation.

In doing that, the judges put themselves in a position to hear the most complex business and technology cases coming into circuit court.

They agreed to be the ones to help implement courtroom technology needed to hear these cases, such as digital exhibits, electronic pleadings and, eventually, Web cam video conferences.

And they promised to bone up on topics such as cyber-squatting, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, genetic modification technology and shareholder inspection rights.

They couldn't be more excited.

"I'm a geek in the corner," Daniels said with a laugh.

"I'm a semi-geek," Fader said.

They're not the only ones looking forward to the change.

Business lawyers, used to seeing eyes glaze over when testimony turns to source codes or virtual property, are happy to have judges interested to hear their cases.

"I think this court they are going to set up will have the ability to deal with tedious facts," said Michael Oliver, a business lawyer in Towson.

A court administrator will decide whether a case should go on the business and technology track, the same way the court decides whether a case should go into the "standard mediation track," the "civil extended standard track," and so on.

The business and technology cases will be assigned to one of the program judges and will remain with that judge for the whole court process, rather than bouncing from judge to judge depending on the hearing.

This way, judges and lawyers said, litigants don't have to keep explaining terms and technology.

"It's just unbelievable how much time you spend saying, `What does this mean,' `I don't know what this word is,' " Fader said.

The business and technology judges will figure out ways to preserve court proceedings and evidence - much of which they expect to be online, virtual or otherwise electronic - for Court of Appeals review. The judges will also publish their decisions online, creating a resource for businesses and lawyers.

"It's a new area of specialization that the courts are going in," Finifter said.

Finifter said he was a state delegate in 2000 when the General Assembly passed legislation to create new provisions for expanding e-commerce in Maryland.

Out of that legislation, a commission of lawyers, judges and business people was formed to look at whether the state's court system needed a special way of dealing with the complicated business and technology cases.

The answer was a resounding "yes," and the court system put together a group of judges to work out ways to implement the task force's recommendations.

The business and technology track, along with the education programs for judges and the technological changes for the courtrooms, was the result.

Approved by judicial officials, the Business/Technology Case Management Program took effect Jan. 2. Judges expect the first case to be assigned soon.

Fader said his "wild guess" is that the county will start out with 10 to 15 special business and technology cases a year.

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