TOPEKA — Two lawyers who appeared Aug. 16 before a three-judge panel for the first oral argument by videoconference in the Court of Appeals’ courtroom didn’t dispense with formalities. They stood as the judges entered the courtroom, even though they were in their Hill City offices more than 250 miles away from the Kansas Judicial Center in Topeka.
The case heard was No. 114,507: Ronald Nickelson and Betty Nickelson vs. Alice Olive Bell, et al, an appeal of a Graham County District Court decision involving ownership interests in surface rights and mineral rights on a piece of real estate.
For Jill Elliott, the attorney representing eight individuals descended from record mineral owners on the property — Alice Olive Bell et al — being in familiar surroundings eased the stress of her first appearance before a Court of Appeals panel.
“It was comforting for me to be able to do it from my office,” Elliott said. “I have two monitors, so I was able to have the court videoconference on one monitor and my notes on the other. It was easy to use. I would do it again.”
It also saved Elliott a lot of time and her clients’ expense. It’s a three-and-a-half hour drive to Topeka from her office in Hill City, a significant investment for an oral argument that lasted approximately 30 minutes.
Tony Potter, the attorney representing the Nickelsons, agreed with Elliott that it saved time and expense. However, he said it was odd to give his oral argument speaking to his computer.
“It was different giving my argument to a monitor rather than to the judges in a courtroom. But overall, it worked really well,” Potter said.
Unlike Elliott, this was not Potter’s first time in front of a Court of Appeals panel. He listed past arguments in Garden City, Norton, Salina, Topeka and Wichita.
“The court has always been very gracious about making sure attorneys don’t have to travel far, but this was still an adjustment for me,” he said.
Potter said hearing cases by video is another example of how courts are finding ways to use technology. He likened it to the introduction of electronic filing, which is available to attorneys in good standing in all state courts in Kansas and is required in some of them, like the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.
Although last week’s oral argument wasn’t the first to be heard by a Court of Appeals panel, it was the first to be heard in the court’s second-floor courtroom in the Kansas Judicial Center. The first was May 17, when attorneys from Liberal and Johnson, both in southwest Kansas, appeared by Skype before a panel meeting in a judicial center conference room.
“We were really pleased with the success of our first videoconference in May, and we are equally pleased with the success of last week’s videoconference in the courtroom,” said Thomas Malone, chief judge of the Court of Appeals. “We’ve been fortunate to have attorneys willing to test drive the technology with us, and that has been extremely helpful.”
Malone was the presiding judge on the panel that heard the case in May. A panel of three other Court of Appeals judges heard the case in the courtroom last week, with Judge Karen Arnold-Burger as the presiding judge.
Arnold-Burger said it was a valuable learning experience for her and her fellow judges, and she looks forward to opportunities to do it again. She sees it as an important option for parties involved in a case and the attorneys who represent them.
“I view the court’s use of videoconferencing technology as an access to justice issue,” Arnold-Burger said. “It cuts down the cost of litigation for the parties, but their issues of law are still being addressed. It allows lawyers to make more efficient use of their time.”
Being convenient and accessible has been a mainstay of the Court of Appeals, according to Judge Joe Pierron, the longest-serving judge on the court and a longtime proponent of court videoconferencing. But, he said, the leap to videoconferencing has taken time.
“One hurdle is getting beyond the mindset that oral arguments must be done in person, but it helps that more people are being exposed to videoconferencing in areas like education,” Pierron said. “Then it becomes a balancing question for the attorney and his or her client. Is it a greater benefit to appear in person, or is it an opportunity to save the cost of the attorney’s time and travel? In a few years, we may be saying, ‘How in the world did we get along without this?’ “
Pierron gives credit to others for helping introduce videoconferencing in the Court of Appeals. First, he mentioned Richard Greene, chief judge of the Court of Appeals in 2011 and 2012. Support also came from Chief Judge Malone, who succeeded Greene, and Chief Justice Lawton Nuss of the Supreme Court. It was their support of the idea, Pierron said, that helped move the concept forward.
For Nuss, he said his own law practice was his guide.
“I practiced law for 20 years, and I had to be cognizant of what litigation cost my client,” he said. “Oral argument by videoconference won’t replace all in-person appearances, but there will be instances where it makes sense. Achieving the desired result is paramount, and some cases do lend themselves to videoconference because it’s a great help to the lawyer and the client.”
Last week’s courtroom videoconference was a follow-on to a Kansas Court of Appeals Videoconferencing Committee pilot project to use videoconferencing in lieu of personal appearances for some appellate court cases under specific circumstances. The committee reviewed available technology, its use by Kansas government agencies, and related procedural issues, and produced Recommendations for Videoconferencing in Kansas Courts.
Conducting some appellate-level oral arguments by videoconference also was a recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Commission, which convened in 2010 to identify ways court operations could be improved and modernized.