5th Circuit Judge Elrod says as AI will not replace the need for judges to retain empathy in the courtroom

Diversity of Possibilities

Judge Jennifer Elrod served as the first Jurist-in-Residence of 2019 for the Judge Ruby Kless Sondock Lectureship in Legal Ethics Jurist-In-Residence Program.

Feb. 26, 2019 — As the use of artificial intelligence in the legal profession increases, members of the bench should ensure the technology was developed without prejudice, Judge Jennifer Elrod of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said during her talk, "Trial by Siri: AI Comes to the Courtroom," last week at the University of Houston Law Center.

Elrod served as the latest jurist-in-residence and speaker at the Justice Ruby Kless Sondock Lectureship in Legal Ethics program.

"Technological growth in the legal field is coming," Elrod said. "It's universal. How this growth will affect the judiciary is not yet known. Such technology raises unique questions when applied to the judicial process.

"We should flag aspects of AI’s use in the courtroom that might threaten the American judiciary and adopt those that might improve it.”

Elrod acknowledged that artificial intelligence will replace functions in the legal field traditionally performed by human beings, and that this kind of technology runs the risk of removing the human element from the judiciary. However, if used in criminal sentencing, artificial intelligence can process more data than humans and help judges make more accurate decisions. Elrod said if these programs are designed carefully and help remove biases, then they can be used effectively.

"Judges will have access to even more accurate risk assessment data, as models become more sophisticated," Elrod said. "Criminal sentencing AI will substantially alter sentencing procedures.

"But the application of empathy is undoubtedly limited by the technological developments in the judicial process. Our immediate obligation is to ensure that when this technology makes its way to the federal courts, that models are accurate and unprejudiced."

A graduate of Baylor, Harvard Law School, and a former state district judge, Elrod was appointed to the appellate bench by President George W. Bush in 2007. She is a member of the board of advisors for the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, the board of directors of the Garland R. Walker Inn of Court, the Baylor University Board of Regents, and the American Law Institute. She has served as the board chair of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics, on the State Bar of Texas Committee on Pattern Jury Charges, and as the board chair of the Gulf Coast Legal Foundation (now Lone Star Legal Aid).

The Jurist-In-Residence program is named in honor of Justice Ruby Kless Sondock, a trailblazer in the law who graduated as valedictorian and one of only five women in the UH law school class of 1962. After practicing law for many years, Sondock was appointed to the 234th District Court in 1977, making her the first female state district judge in Harris County. She was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court in 1982, making her the first woman to serve in a regular session of the court. She was proclaimed a "Texas Legal Legend" by the litigation section of the State Bar of Texas in 2016.

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