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At oral argument on the road, avoid the Red Square

Appellate lawyers familiar with the small green, yellow, and red argument timing lights used by appeals courts are confronted with a much different system when they make their cases to the Supreme Court of Virginia’s traveling writ panels.

As lawyers assembled today in a small courtroom in Salem for writ hearings, many were surprised to see the bench dominated by a bright red computer monitor flashing the ominous words: “Argument Time Expired.”

In the absence of any justices sitting on the dais, it appeared as if the real authority in the courtroom was an impersonal computer with a menacing screen. “It’s quite imposing,” said veteran appellate attorney Frank Friedman as he waited for the first case to be called.

The computer monitor is part of the system the justices use when they go “on the road” for writ panel hearings outside of Richmond. Once the arguments began, the screen appeared less intrusive. The monitor was placed to the speaker’s right, allowing eye contact with the justices. The background changed from crimson to black, with green numbers counting down the time from ten minutes. With three minutes left, the numbers change to yellow.

Only if your time runs out does the ugly red square again make an appearance, flashing the obvious “time expired” message. It’s hard to miss, but – when it appeared in one argument – presiding Justice Lawrence Koontz didn’t wait for counsel to notice. Within a second or two, he thanked the lawyer at the lectern and sent him on his way.

By Peter Vieth

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