In the face of extraordinary worldwide interest in whether the verdict against English au pair Louise Woodward will be altered, Judge Hiller Zobel Tuesday said he plans to take the unusual step of releasing his decision via the Internet.
Anticipating a crush of requests for the ruling and prompted by a suggestion from his computer-savvy son, Zobel decided the Internet offered a quick and fair method to distribute his Woodward decision. The judge said his decision could be released as early as today.
Ordinarily, Zobel would file his decision on paper in the first floor clerk’s office at the Cambridge courthouse. The decision would then be placed in the case folder and copied, at $1.50 a page, for interested parties.
“Normally, we just put it in the folder, and if someone wants to look at it, we photocopy it,” said Whitney Brown, the first assistant clerk magistrate at the courthouse. “That will not suffice in a case like this.”
Superior Court decisions have been available via the Internet on World Wide Web sites in the past, but only after a paper copy was first filed with the clerk and usually several days after the decision was filed.
Court officials said this is the first time a Massachusetts judge plans to use the Internet as the primary source for releasing a decision.
The Internet plan was hatched out of necessity.
The clerk’s office at the courthouse is small and lacks the technology to release the decision in an orderly way to the scores of media members stationed there for the trial.
“This is an antiquated office with limited computer access,” said Brown. In fact, the Massachusetts court system is notorious for its slow embrace of new technology.
Sources said Zobel became interested in the Internet possibility after talking with his son David, a 1984 graduate of the California Institute of Technology.
Judges write their decisions on court-issued laptop computers, so transferring the decision to the operators of World Wide Web sites does not involve any complicated technological issues.
Brown, at the request of Zobel, contacted officials at Lawyers Weekly, a legal publication that operates a World Wide Web site. The site regularly offers electronic access to Massachusetts court decisions.
By early afternoon Tuesday, however, the Lawyers Weekly Web site was overwhelmed with inquiries from computer users alerted to the fact the site would be a source for the Zobel decision. Several popular World Wide Web sites, including CNN Interactive, further increased traffic by offering its users a link to the Lawyers Weekly site.
By midafternoon, most computer users could not access the Lawyers Weekly site. A spokesman said technicians were working feverishly Tuesday to add more capacity to the site.
By early evening, court officials decided to add 11 other Web sites as distribution points for the decision. Those sites include those operated by the Boston Globe, the major television networks, the Associated Press, the Press Association of Great Britain, and Court TV.
The addition of these Web sites, which have the ability to handle hundreds of thousands of users simultaneously, should provide the kind of quick and easy access to the decision that Zobel envisioned.
The judge also has indicated he will send electronic mail to some news organizations and the parties in the case, alerting them that his decision is ready to be announced.
Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Mulligan said Tuesday that Zobel had discussed with him the idea of using the Internet to broadcast his decision and that he agreed with the novel idea.
“I think that’s a good idea based upon the demand for the decision and the great public interest,” Mulligan said. “It seems like a fair way to get it out. Otherwise, there would be a tremendous demand for services on the (Middlesex) clerk’s office.”
He also said that he expects Zobel will file a paper copy with the clerk’s office as required.
xxxx DECISION ONLINE The Lawyer’s Weekly Web site address is http://www.lawyersweekly.com.