Maybe “iPad Judges” aren’t such a good idea?

I’m no Luddite. I own a PC, a Macbook, an iPad, an iPhone, and a Kindle. (I’m not in the market for an Apple Watch, though.) Yet, I’m not thrilled that more and more judges (supposedly) are reading briefs and reviewing appellate records on iPads and other electronic devices.

The issue was brought to mind today by a lively exchange on the Los Angeles County Bar Association listserv for the Appellate Courts Section. The discussion is about the technical requirements for electronic filing or submission of briefs, petitions, exhibits, etc. in the Court of Appeal. There is predictable grumbling over the inconsistency in the rules from district to another, but mostly the discussion is over the page numbering requirements, which are designed to make sure that the page number of a PDF file corresponds to the page number of the physical document. Here’s how appellate attorney Robin Meadow of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland, LLP, helpfully and succinctly explained it (my emphasis):

To elaborate a little:  This is all about reading briefs on-screen. PDF programs, whether on computer or tablet, allow you to specify a page to go to, but as Ed notes this is always the page of the PDF.  Under the old system, page 20 of a brief is something like page 30 of the PDF, because the PDF numbering includes the cover page, certificate of interested parties, TOC and TOA.  So, you have to guess at the page number to put in, or count the initial pages and then calculate the PDF page number every time.  Under the new system, there is one and only one page 20, whether you’re looking at a paper copy or the PDF.

Aside from court-imposed rules, there have been several articles about how to best prepare documents to be read by appellate justices on an iPad or other electronic device. A few months ago, Appellate Law Journal from Counsel Press (that is just a reference, not an endorsement) led me to another article on how best to format briefs for reading on tablets: Maximizing Your Appellate Brief for the iPad. That post references the Columbia Business Law Review article that I wrote about in January of last year. I will be the first to admit there are some advantages to having a text-searchable brief, but does that come at a cost?

Consider this summary of a Norwegian study at Science Nordic:

Neo-Luddites rejoice: numerous studies show that when you read a text on paper your understanding is deeper and longer lasting than if you read that same text on a computer.

Of course, if you read the text on a screen you can probably recount what you read. But you cannot as readily make use of the content in other contexts. You haven’t comprehended it as deeply and assimilated it as substantially.

Digital information isn’t just a fleeting phenomenon on your computer screen. It disappears more quickly from your memory, too. Screens are best for superficial and speedy reading.

I have felt this intuitively for some time, so I avoid doing extended reading on screen when comprehension and retention are necessary. For perusing blogs or short letters, my iPad is fine. It also suffices for novels and other lengthy leisure reading. But if I need to read a brief or a case or something else that makes comprehension and retention important, I print it out and read it off the paper, marking it up with a pen as I go. Call me a tree-killer, but I’m not about to give up this practice. I’ve tried reading PDFs on my screen and annotating them with PDF editing software as I go along, but it’s just not the same for me. I’ll stick with reading from paper; the  electronic file is always available if I need to search for something in the original text (though it’s no help in searching my notes, or course).  I wonder how many of our appellate justices feel the same way. (I hope none of the justices ever says to me at oral argument, “So, Mr. May, I read your brief on my iPad. You got a problem with that?”)

Getting back to the study: I am curious whether the study looked only at persons old enough to have grown up reading off the printed page. Perhaps today’s youth, who may have done a majority of their reading from screens, will develop so that they actually read better from a screen than from a printed page.

In a viral YouTube video [see below] from October 2011 a one-year-old girl sweeps her fingers across an iPad’s touchscreen, shuffling groups of icons. In the following scenes she appears to pinch, swipe and prod the pages of paper magazines as though they too were screens. When nothing happens, she pushes against her leg, confirming that her finger works just fine—or so a title card would have us believe.

The girl’s father, Jean-Louis Constanza, presents “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work” as naturalistic observation—a Jane Goodall among the chimps moment—that reveals a generational transition. “Technology codes our minds,” he writes in the video’s description. “Magazines are now useless and impossible to understand, for digital natives”—that is, for people who have been interacting with digital technologies from a very early age.

That’s a cute anecdote — or a horrifying one, depending on your perspective — but despite that introduction, the subhead of that piece at Scientific American notes that “research suggests that reading on paper still boasts unique advantages” over reading on a screen, and describes them in ways that suggest the printed page is advantageous even for those raised reading from screens.

For more articles and commentary on the subject, click here.

Update: I re-drafted this post as an article.