Virginia Supreme Court to allow computers at argument

By Peter Vieth, Virginia Lawyers Weekly – 8/5/2013

Tech-savvy appellate lawyers will have an extra tool at their command in September when the Supreme Court of Virginia will, for the first time, allow personal computers during oral argument.

Beginning with the September session of the court, lawyers may be granted permission to use laptops and tablets at oral argument, both at writ panels and at argument on the merits. A computer at the lectern would give the lawyer access to a wide range of documents related to the case at hand.

What lawyers will not be able to do is access the Internet, which means no emailing, tweeting or instant messaging.

Also forbidden: any recording of sound, pictures or video. The computer must be in silent mode and must be kept in a case when not being used during counsel’s argument.

A lawyer planning to use a computer at the lectern must ask permission at least 72 hours before oral argument. If the court approves, the court’s written permission must be presented to the police officer on duty when the lawyer arrives at the court for argument.

Some lawyers could make “enormous” use of a tablet when standing before the justices, said appellate lawyer L. Steven Emmert of Virginia Beach.

The computer could hold all of the briefs, all the cases cited in the briefs and the entire trial record, if needed.

“The lawyer could have it all available – if organized well – at the tap of a finger,” Emmert said. “It brings the court into the 21st Century,” he said.

Abuses of the privilege, such as attempting to tweet from the courtroom, would be unlikely, Emmert said. Any violation of the rules would likely bring a “death stare at best, confiscation at worst,” Emmert speculated.

The computer-in-the-courtroom policy will not be in place for writ panels scheduled for Aug. 28. Those hearings, where the losing party at trial asks the court to take up an appeal, will feature two “road shows,” according to Emmert.

Although the official docket is not yet available on the court website, Emmert says some of the justices will be dispatched to Leesburg and Lexington for writ panel hearings.

For lawyers who don’t often get to Richmond, the court’s traveling panels provide an excellent opportunity for training, Emmert said. “You get to hear actual lawyers arguing actual appeals,” he said.