Innovation in the Judiciary

I'm excited about the Judicial Innovation Fellowship Program

Years ago, I argued that lawyers should learn about writing software because doing so could improve the interactions between lawyers and technologists. As I wrote:

Ultimately, lawyers and non-lawyers must learn to talk to each other. To collaborate with each other. To tackle society’s challenges together. And that requires empathy for each other’s domain expertise.

Over the past six years, it is largely unsurprising that lawyers have not stepped up to the plate. More surprising, though, is that government institutions have increasingly created formal paths for technologists to answer the call.

In my own experience, I have seen tech fellowship programs succeed in both local government, and in both branches of the federal government. Which is why I was thrilled to see the creation of the Judicial Innovation Fellowship program at Georgetown Law’s Tech Institute.

Readers of these pages know that trial courts at the state, local, territorial, and tribal (SLTT) levels are vital to the basic fabric of democracy in the United States. And, unfortunately, SLTT trial courts are typically structurally underfunded and rely on outmoded tools and technologies.

As the program explains:

Partnering with state and tribal courts to build critical data infrastructure, simplify process, and improve usability of court services, this competitive fellowship is a unique opportunity to innovate a core democratic institution. More than just a job with a competitive salary and benefits, this fellowship is the flagship opportunity to change the way people access their rights and are served by courts.

On first blush, these goals may sound lofty. It’s just a one-year fellowship, right?

Over the years, though, a pattern with government tech fellowship programs has emerged. And I, for one, am hopeful to see it repeat itself here. That pattern? People join these fellowships expecting to stay for a year or two and then return to the private sector. But that expectation is quickly shattered when they realize the potential impact they can have and the level of professional satsifaction they can enjoy as public-servant technologists.

For example, over 50% of the Presidential Innovation Fellows end up staying in government roles after graduating from the program. By my read of the description, the PIF appears to be the closest analogue to the Judicial Innovation Fellowship program. If even a quarter of the technologists who join the courts as innovation fellows end up staying, our democracy will be better off.

I still believe that lawyers should put in effort to learn how technology works. In the mean time, though, we are fortunate that government and related institutions are stepping to create space for technologists to fill an access-to-justice gap.

If you work in a SLTT trial court, or are a technologist who cares about justice and democracy, I highly recommend you check out the program.