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Legally Speaking


Issue: August, 2006
Author: Mary Angell

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The Court Meets the Challenge of Change

As the Hon. Barton R. Voigt takes the helm of the Wyoming Supreme Court, the high court itself is embarking on a voyage toward modernization and technological advancement.

The new chief justice finds himself a rather ironic captain for such a voyage.

“I don’t know anything about technology, and I’m the least likely person to be leading the charge into technology,” Voigt told the Wyoming Lawyer in an interview earlier this summer.

The historic Supreme Court building will soon undergo an $8 million renovation, which will include improvements in the building’s heating, air conditioning, safety and security systems. At the same time, the court is launching its first automated case filing system and examining the possibility of creating an Internet-based electronic case filing system for all of the state’s courts.

As the court prepares to move to its temporary quarters in the Hathaway Building, Voigt believes his primary task as chief justice will be to help the court simply weather the storm.

“The challenge of holding the court together as an institution when we’re trying to hold court in the lobby of the Hathaway Building, and the administration is in the other end of the building, and offices in the hallway…” he said, “is going to be harder than people expect.”

The staff won’t have the office space it needs in the Hathaway Building, Voigt said.

Further complicating matters is the shift of the Supreme Court to an automated case management system. The state’s circuit courts were first to become automated, followed, with greater difficulty, by the district courts. The systems are not the same, nor are they networked, but they are compatible.

The recent adoption by the Supreme Court of a case management system makes life a lot easier for the court and its staff, Voigt said.

“Now when Judy (Pacheco, Supreme Court clerk) dockets a case, it exists for everybody. When Debbie (Hehr, Voigt’s judicial assistant) inputs an opinion, it’s circulated to everybody,” he said.

The next step in automation for the state’s judiciary may be the establishment of a web-based electronic case filing system, which would enable members of the judiciary and Bar to file documents from their office computers; briefs would be automatically served to the pertinent parties. The electronic case file would be the official case file.

The system raises “huge questions,” Voigt said, such as whether to make filing electronically voluntary or mandatory and how to handle the large volume of cases and documents that pour in from the district and federal courts. Voigt anticipates spending most of his term just studying the issue.

“I don’t believe in the government just proceeding with something at your expense and cramming it down your throat,” he said. “If I go out there and find out nobody wants it, if we do a cost benefit analysis and find out it is expensive, it would be foolish to pursue it.”

He has already begun to test the murky waters of electronic case filing through his statewide meetings with members of the Bar.

“Every meeting is almost identical,” he said. “Two or three people say, ‘Do it. It’s great. It’s not expensive and not difficult.’ And four or five people say, ‘Are you out of your mind? It’s risky and dangerous. There are hackers out there.’ The majority look at me and say, ’I never thought about it.’”

Personally, the new chief justice has his doubts about having legal documents exist only in a digital form.

“I will never be comfortable with electronic only,” he said. “If we hear 15 cases in one week and another 10 on expedited docket, that’s 25 cases. If you get three briefs on each, that’s 75 briefs. I’m not going to read 75 briefs on the computer.”

While some people swear by online research, Voigt said it’s easier for him to have the documents in front of him to read in their entirety, refer to and compare.

“I can see the ability to electronically file cases in this court being pretty helpful, but wonder if we’re still going to have to follow up with paper documents,” he said. “It’s not just me; a lot of people have trouble reading documents on screen. Judy has heard about a lot of places where they’ve had to hire people to print out hard copies.”

“Our own expert tells us electronic filing nationwide is in its infancy,” Voigt added. “We have some questions whether we should be out there leading the charge.”

Voigt’s passage to the chief justice’s bench was not a straightforward voyage.

A native of South Dakota, he grew up in Thermopolis. He earned his Bachelors and Masters in American History from the University of Wyoming and worked as a research historian before deciding to enter the legal profession, a change in course Voigt calls “bizarre.”

“I was doing research on manuscript collections in the state archives in Pierre, South Dakota, when I developed an allergy to dust and mold on the old papers. It was literally, physically, driving me nuts,” he said. “I was sitting in a basement room, thinking ‘Nothing I am doing here matters much to anyone alive and here today. I’d like to get into something that has more significance.’”

Because he liked the combination of people and ideas presented by the legal profession, he decided to take the law school aptitude test. He also sought the advice of his childhood friend, Cheyenne attorney Steve Freudenthal, about whether to pursue a legal career.

“He thought I should do it, so I did,” Voigt said.

He graduated from the UW College of Law in 1979. After running a private practice in Thermopolis for 10 years, during which he served two terms as Hot Springs County Attorney, Voigt was appointed county court judge in Campbell County in 1989.

From 1990 to 1993, he was chief prosecutor in the Campbell County Attorney’s office, and in 1993, he was appointed the district judge of the Eighth Judicial District.

In 1998, he presided over State v. McKinney, the nationally publicized trial in the murder of Matthew Shepard.

“The single most difficult thing I have done as a judge was to handle the Matthew Shepard case,” he said. “There was so much attention paid to it and so many expectations from the outside world. My avowed purpose from the start was not to let it turn into a circus, but it was difficult. There were protestors out on the lawn, a little girl dressed in costume with a sign that said, “Fags die in hell.” (Folk music trio) Peter, Paul and Mary out on the lawn. You’d look out of the courthouse window and see a TV camera and boom mic pointed at the window. Keeping it under control was quite a task.”

“It’s one of the things I am most proud of,” Voigt said. “I thought I succeeded in making the case what it was about, not something else.”

Just a few years after that trial, in 2001, he was appointed to the Wyoming Supreme Court.

As he begins his term as chief justice, Voigt said he doesn’t see anything earth shattering happening in the Wyoming judiciary in the next four or five years.

“I’m looking forward to working with the Legislature,” he said. “We’re enjoying a good relationship with them. They’ve been very open and helpful to us as far as this remodeling and case management system is concerned.”

He’s also looking forward to the completion of the Supreme Court building’s renovation.

“I do not intend to spend my entire chiefship in the Hathaway Building,” he said. “I like to think that when this building is done, it will be great for the people. The Supreme Court will be much more accessible.”

“I have no agenda of my own,” Voigt concluded. “I’m not out to redesign the judiciary. I really feel that self-preservation is going to be difficult on the court. We’re going to be sitting over there looking longingly through the window at our old office and wishing we had it.”

Mary Angell is a freelance writer from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and a frequent contributor to the Wyoming Lawyer.

Copyright © 2006 – Wyoming State Bar