Originally created 11/20/02

Video link-up gets day in court

SAVANNAH, Ga. - They called it the Hollywood Squares screen.

But any resemblance to the trivial television show disappeared when the proceedings began.

In the middle square sat Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman S. Fletcher.

Surrounding him were the court's six other justices and two attorneys - including Barnard Portman, sitting at a computer desk in Savannah.

The lawyers were making arguments before the court Monday - just the second time it has been done through video-conferencing.

In the classroom at Savannah's Coastal Georgia Center, large monitors at the front and back of the room switched from one big picture to nine small ones. When the court called the case Phillips vs. Sea Tow, the chief justice asked: "Did both attorneys check in?"

Everyone laughed - both in the Atlanta courtroom and in the Savannah classroom - because Mr. Portman wasn't there, at least not physically.

At issue was which court - state or federal - has jurisdiction over a civil claim involving the 1998 salvage of Robert Phillips' catamaran, which capsized about 70 miles east of Sapelo Island.

James W. Bartlett III, representing Mr. Phillips, appealed a lower court's decision that the case should be heard in state court. Mr. Bartlett says it should be heard in federal court because it deals with maritime law.

But Mr. Portman, a Savannah attorney who represents Sea Tow, argued that the case can be heard in state court because it deals with money and not property, which would move it to federal court.

The justices will consider both arguments before issuing an order in the case, which could take months.

The state Supreme Court first used the videoconfer-encing for oral arguments at the state bar office in Tifton.

"It's a fascinating resource, and we thought we should take advantage of it," said Sherie Welch, the clerk of the Georgia Supreme Court.

One reason: to save time for attorneys and clients.

Traditionally, arguing before the full bench lasts only 20 minutes per side.

After 40 minutes, the hearing is over, and the lawyers go home.

That could mean nine or 10 hours of travel time for a 40-minute event.

If he had traveled to Atlanta, Mr. Portman said, the day's work would likely have cost his client more than $2,000.

"It's really a service to the public to make the court more accessible," Ms. Welch said.

As the hearing started Monday morning, the technology was working well.

Everyone was visible on the monitors, and the action in the Atlanta courtroom could be heard through the speaker system.

But a few minutes into Mr. Bartlett's argument, the voices got softer and muffled.

It was difficult to hear Mr. Bartlett and the questions the justices asked of him. By the time Mr. Portman spoke, though, the problem had been resolved.

With each justice visible on the monitor, every motion they made was magnified - from adjusting their glasses, to wiping their eyes, to moving papers on the bench. Just as he could see them on the monitors, Mr. Portman could be seen by the judges through monitors at each of their seats on the bench.

"I want to thank the parties for allowing us to experiment a little with our videoconferen-cing," Justice Fletcher said.

Once the hearing concluded, Mr. Portman said he would do it again.

"The slight technical problem had me a little concerned," he said.

But he was able to see the justices' expressions, and when his turn came, he was able to hear their questions.

Mr. Bartlett was unable to use the video system. Based in Baltimore, he couldn't link up with the program there. And he found it was less expensive for him to fly into Atlanta than Savannah.

He says he wouldn't mind using the computer, though. Mr. Bartlett, who has previously argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, says nothing intimidates him anymore.

"After you do that, I have the attitude that I can do just about anything," he said.


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