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Federal Judicial Center Celebrates 50 Years: IT Development

The 1967 statute creating the Center required the new agency to “study and determine ways in which automatic data processing and systems procedures may be applied to the administration of the courts of the United States.” Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, much of this work was done by the FJC’s Innovations and Systems Development division as part of COURTRAN, the collective name for a suite of computer software and hardware designed to enhance courts’ efficiency. The Center sought to develop technology that was flexible, simple for users, and economically feasible. To ensure that the programs met each of these goals, Center staff consulted with court staff and did a series of tests in pilot jurisdictions during a phase known as COURTRAN I. The programs implemented in most federal courts following this design and testing stage were known as COURTRAN II. 
The first such programs involved court administration, including case management and docketing (criminal and civil case-flow management systems) and automatic data processing for research purposes (criminal and civil research programs). These programs became operational in the mid-to-late 1970s, though they were not in place in all jurisdictions at the time. Subsequent programs included appellate case-flow management software, a district court case index system (INDEX) and its appellate equivalent (CAIS), the Speedy Trial Accounting and Reporting System (STARS), Computer Assisted Legal Research (CALR), and email and word-processing capabilities.
The rapid growth of these programs, in scale and complexity, belies the challenges posed by bringing technological innovations to the judiciary. By the 1970s it had become commonplace to lament the state of technology in the courts as a reflection of the need for better administration. Although the judiciary had gradually embraced reform in the interests of more efficient administration between the 1920s and 1960s, the technology of the courtroom had changed fairly little since the creation of the judiciary in 1789. Rudimentary copying machines marked the heights of technological innovation in most judges’ chambers. Nonetheless, many people working in the courts, including the Center’s first director, Justice Tom Clark, saw great promise in new technologies. Touting the advantages of the COURTRAN project, Justice Clark wrote in 1974—with a good dose of hyperbole—that with adequate funding the courts could have “an automated management system that will outdo the feats of Hercules.”
But new technologies also engendered caution and skepticism. To deal with differences between jurisdictions’ existing practices, FJC technology staff had to develop a series of flexible programs that would meet the diverse needs of judges and court staff, many of whom were committed to, and comfortable with, existing methods of administration. Perhaps paradoxically, this led to the need for more advanced programs than those in use in many offices at the time, as the FJC developed a rudimentary form of “artificial intelligence” designed to make COURTRAN programs adaptable to individual courts’ needs. 
The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 elevated the need for both improved data collection and improved systems of court management. The Act imposed new case-monitoring and statistical reporting requirements on federal courts, which meant that the FJC worked on two fronts: to develop case-management technology for criminal case tracking and to collect and analyze data to report back to Congress on the impact of the Act. Congress appropriated additional funds to help the Center meet the deadlines it imposed, and data-processing automation became arguably the Center’s biggest project to that point. Although some in Congress expressed consternation that the FJC’s rigorous surveying and testing had led to too gradual an implementation of criminal case tracking, the programs the Center developed eventually led to a more efficient method of collecting and reporting vital data—first on criminal cases and later in civil matters. 
The research and technological innovations missions of the FJC grew in tandem during the Center’s first two decades. Early proponents of the FJC’s creation argued that empirical research undertaken by the courts was essential to increasing administrative efficiency and developing sound and informed policy. As then-Deputy Director Charles Nihan and Assistant Director Russell Wheeler wrote in 1981, “computer technology is vital” to the research mission of the FJC. New technologies made it possible to collect data via computers from local courts for transmission to Washington, D.C., where the data could be used by researchers and administrators. To facilitate data collection and analysis, the Center built into the COURTRAN project a number of research tools, including statistical analysis capabilities. 
With new capabilities for computer-assisted research, FJC staff grappled with challenging methodological questions related to ensuring the accuracy and reliability of data collected and the soundness of results from data analyzed using computers.  During the early-to-mid 1970s, researchers at the FJC experimented with a number of computer-assisted legal research projects.  They also developed methods for traditional non-computer based research and computer-based research to compare the reliability and accuracy of results. By 1981, computer technology had been used in several Center projects and most extensively in research analyzing the impact on the federal courts of the Speedy Trial Act of 1974.
Although today the use of computers in legal research is widespread, its use was not uncontroversial in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Judges, lawyers, and court staff trained in conventional legal research methods were at times skeptical of the use of computers to find sources and crosscheck authorities. Studies conducted by the FJC demonstrated the efficiency and accuracy gains of legal research software over traditional methods, however, and the Center helped to introduce these emerging technologies into courthouses around the nation. Adoption of many of these programs was voluntary and depended on the preferences of individual judges and jurisdictions, but they rapidly became commonplace as the gains in efficiency became evident.
Center staff had to balance the need to research and develop new computer technologies in a thoughtful and rigorous manner against the rapid pace of technological change outside the court system. Tasks that might have called for a sea of punch cards and room-filling machines in the early years of the FJC’s technology efforts could be performed by a small desktop computer by the end of the 1980s. In the early years of the COURTRAN project, the FJC employed two large computers in Washington, D.C., with end users in the courts inputting and receiving information processed by these computers at terminals in their courthouses. With the emergence and rapid improvement of personal computers during the 1980s, however, the Center transitioned to a system more familiar to the modern courts, with court staff using FJC-designed software on personal microcomputers. 
At approximately the same time, a comparable administrative transition was taking place. From the early years of the COURTRAN program, the judiciary envisioned a division of labor whereby the FJC would develop, test, and implement new software and hardware and thereafter transfer the operation and administration of these programs to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO). Throughout the 1980s, the AO took over operation of several of the major COURTRAN programs, eventually assuming the lion’s share of responsibility for technology and automation in the courts beginning in the early 1990s.