Change and Continuity


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.







They Are Coming – You Better Build It (A slight variation of the theme from Field of Dreams)

futuristic-buildingPeter Kiefer, Civil Court Administrator for the Maricopa Superior Court, and Phil Knox, the General Jurisdiction Courts Administrator, are engaged in a Court Futures study for the National Association of Court Managers (NACM) and last summer they addressed the American Institute of Architects.  The architects know they will have to design the courthouses and related infrastructure that the justice system will use for the next hundred years or so.  And, Pete and Phil went to great effort to get a lot of input from knowledgeable people within the justice and related communities to make reasoned predictions of what forces will be acting on the courts and what that will portend for the administration of justice.  For that reason, the architects were extremely interested in what Pete and Phil are finding.

Without giving away too much about the NACM study findings[1], I will (with Pete’s permission) reveal that, unsurprisingly, one of the scenarios deemed extremely likely to occur by the year 2025 is that most courts will have gone “paperless.”   The fulfillment of that scenario alone will necessarily carry large architectural implications.

For starters, when I began researching the AIA, I found that Pete and Phil had been attending and addressing the AIA’s Academy of Architecture for Justice Fall Conference.  Their website states that

“The AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ) promotes and fosters the exchange of information and knowledge between members, professional organizations, and the public for high-quality planning, design, and delivery of justice architecture.”

Thus, not only is the AIA looking at the courthouses of the future, there is an entire academy that focuses on the subject.

Consider first the term “justice architecture.”  One inescapable consequence of “paperless” courts is significantly increased emphasis on Integrated Justice.  Courthouses (or whatever they are called in the future) are already, and will be designed in the future, as a component of this integrated justice system.   The infrastructure will both support and leverage internal (within courts and other justice agencies) and external (cross-agency and public-facing) workflow and content flow.  Physical proximity will not be the key element for effective interaction; systems integration will be.

Second, much baggage from current designs will not make the trip into the future.  Imagine a funding body — legislature, county supervisors, city council — approving a design that calls for extensive square footage for document and file storage. “Mail room” will take on a completely different meaning as content is received, categorized and routed in ways designed to maximize security, efficiency and effectiveness using state of the art paper on demand processes with workflow.

Third, structures can be designed based on ergonomics, rather than to accommodate movement of paper and files to people or vice-versa.  Public spaces can be located where it is more convenient (and/or more secure) for the public to visit.  High-cost, high-risk transport of prisoners can be minimized or eliminated through effective leveraging of an infrastructure that supports remote audio/video conferencing and hearings, together with paper on demand that enables timely and appropriate document distribution, delivery and signature within a fully integrated environment.

These are just a few “armchair” ruminations on the implications of paper on demand for courthouse design.  Doubtless many, many other interesting, exciting, and important consequences will suggest themselves to those who actually know something about architecture (of whom I am not one).  For me, it is exciting to know that those who will be tasked with designing courthouses for the next century are even now engaging in this type of outreach to those attempting to understand and prepare for the future of the courts.


[1] To learn more about or to participate in the NACM Future of Courts study, contact Peter Keifer at