St. Charles County Circuit Judge Rick Zerr tried to hold a hearing via videoconference in his courtroom on June 25. It didn’t work.
Zerr’s bench is flanked on either side by 80-inch wall-mounted screens. On that morning, they were supposed to be lit up with a camera feed from a far-away Missouri Department of Corrections facility where a defendant waited to interface with the court. Yet the screens stayed dark. It turned out the IP address of the Department of Corrections camera had changed, and Zerr wasn’t notified. He grew impatient and rescheduled it.
“Very seldom do we have this problem,” Zerr said later.
The broader, underlying truth: Zerr is so far out ahead on the use of tech in the courtroom that sometimes the rest of the system can’t keep up with him.
Through the past seven years, Zerr has become the Missouri judiciary’s unofficial tech guru at the circuit level. He was a major player in the adoption of both eFiling — the state courts’ online document-management system — and eBench, the digital platform that helps judges to organize their dockets and schedules. Now he trains new judges on those tools. Most recently, Zerr has become an evangelist for videoconferencing.
While most Missouri courthouses have at least some audio-visual capability, very few courtrooms have the tools Zerr’s does. He has separate cameras pointed at the prosecution, defense, witness stand and the bench, for example — all of which he can display on his wall monitors.
Zerr conducts videoconference hearings only a few times a week at most, but he said they’re already a resource-saving boon to his docket. In June, a dozen employees from the St. Louis County Court system, which has the necessary equipment but hasn’t fully used it, trekked across the Missouri River to watch Zerr in action and learn about his tools, logistics and philosophy.
“We’re at inflection point in our society,” Zerr said. “Banks used to be a place. Now they’re a concept. Courts are becoming that way. You don’t have to be there to participate.”
Zerr didn’t even know what a Word document was when he became a circuit judge in 2006.
Then in the summer of 2011, Zerr attended a multi-day training in Alabama at the National Computer Forensics Institute, a program in which federal security agents educate state and local court officers on digital evidence and network intrusion. He was intrigued. That same year, St. Charles County became the first Missouri court to try out the eFiling system. Zerr, then the presiding judge, led the way.
“He was instrumental,” said Patrick Brooks, director of the information technology services division at the Office of the State Court Administrator. “He’s been a tremendous advocate and asset for me.”
After the roll-out of eFiling, Zerr then worked on a similar process for the eBench system. He now trains new judges how to use that tool in orientation programs that typically occur in the month of January.
These experiences have landed Zerr a role in Show-Me Courts, the case-management automation system under construction at OSCA. Show-Me Courts eventually will be the court-facing platform behind the public-facing Case.net. Show-Me Courts is being built incrementally based on input from users themselves; Zerr is representing his fellow judges in that collaborative process.
His efforts through the years have not escaped notice. He received the first Honorable Clifford Ahrens Excellence in Technical Advancements Award at the annual judicial conference in 2016. In a speech introducing the award, then-Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge praised Zerr’s willingness to help his colleagues hone their tech chops.
“I received an overwhelming number of nominations for Judge Zerr,” Breckenridge said. “Many lauded his ability to present complex technological issues in simple, easy-to-understand language. He was described as a visionary, gifted and tireless advocate.”
Lately, Zerr has advocated for more videoconferencing. For one thing, he argues, it’s more convenient and less expensive for out-of-town attorneys (one of whom has joined his courtroom from as far away as Vietnam).
For another thing, defendants in state custody occasionally prefer it — and if so, they must sign a form to that effect; no defendant is forced to videoconference. Their reasons for wanting to participate vary, Zerr said. Some wish to plead guilty as quickly as possible to outstanding charges and thereby “stack” sentences in order to serve them concurrently. Others don’t want to leave their DOC facility to appear in court because doing so may interfere with their drug-treatment programs.
Zerr said a big financial benefit accrues to his court when defendant transfers are reduced — even if the defendant is just across the street at the St. Charles County jail.
“We save a tremendous amount of money and time,” Zerr said. In the first half of 2011, videoconferencing resulted in a combined savings of at least $165,000 across the circuit courts, the DOC and county agencies, according to a report by OSCA.
Another bonus: less risk to officers or deputies making the transfer. In June, a prisoner fatally shot two deputies during a transfer in Kansas City, Kansas.
Not everyone thinks videoconferencing is a good idea, Zerr noted. He has heard indirectly that some public defenders aren’t thrilled by the prospect because they would prefer to prepare with clients in person at the courthouse right before a hearing.
But Zerr said that in his mind, “there aren’t many downsides.”
For all his tech-related zeal, Zerr is not a slave to gadgets when he’s out of the office. In certain moments with his family, he said, the typical generational roles are flipped.
“I’m the one who provides assistance to my kids,” he said. “With one exception — when I get a new phone, I bring my grandchildren over to set it up.”