It’s so great to have David Lat back with a guest post at Above the Law — not only because it’s a sign that he is recovering from his serious COVID-19 scare a few weeks ago, but also because he always adds desperately needed sensibility to a blog that has become virtually unreadable since he handed over the full-time reins years ago.
Lat comments on the recent round of telephonic oral arguments at the Supreme Court, and in particular the Justices’ stringently ordered questioning. Some prominent commentators have criticized the regimented process, arguing that it prevents cross-discussion and gives to much power to the Chief Justice, who acts as the moderator. But Lat points out that a more carefully ordered structure also has its advantages, and even notes that there is ample room for some middle ground:
Evidence that the new approach promotes rather than reduces equality among the justices: the active participation of Justice Clarence Thomas, who in the past has rarely asked questions during oral argument, but who used the more orderly format to raise a number of excellent and incisive points. The old format gave an unfair advantage to the most aggressive and obstreperous justices, while disadvantaging someone like Justice Thomas, a self-described introvert, as well as the female justices, who were frequently interrupted by their male colleagues. In other words, the new format is more fair to justices who aren’t white males.
But there is, as is often the case at SCOTUS, some room for compromise. My proposal (which I previously floated on Twitter): have one round of questions moderated by the Chief Justice, where each justice gets to have a say, then devote the remaining time to unstructured questioning.
Yes. Even with an institution as tradition-oriented and “small-c” conservative as the Supreme Court, there is a good chance that some of the changes necessitated by the coronavirus will stick when the pandemic is over. Lat offers good suggestions that the Supreme Court might well wish to take into account.
Courthouses around the country are slowly reopening, with a panoply of health and social distancing guidelines. One of the most basic rules is that everyone in the courthouse must wear a face mask — a wholly sensible approach from a public health perspective. But mandatory face coverings also pose interesting new challenges for lawyers, judges, and juries, because of our reliance on facial expressions to assess emotion and credibility.
Courts are awakening to the problem, and trying to develop creative ways to permit certain participants to uncover their faces while protecting public health. One possible solution is to conduct voir dire by videoconference. Another is to cover witness and jury boxes with clear plexiglass, an admittedly second-best solution. As one Texas judge noted,
in Harris County, the courts are already installing plexiglass to protect the clerks, court reporters and bailiffs, who sit in high-traffic areas of courtrooms.
“I joke our courtrooms are going to look like a hockey rink,” he said. “We’re not putting plexiglass up around the jury box, because we haven’t figured out how we are going to conduct the jury trials. This is an issue that’s causing a lot of concern, because people sitting in the jury box are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Whatever the solution, the courtrooms will certainly feel different for a while.
Yesterday, Texas held the first jury trial to be conducted exclusively through Zoom videoconferencing. The one-day summary jury trial was also livestreamed on YouTube.
This represents a major development, given that every other jurisdiction has simply postponed jury trials until courthouses reopen. And judges are increasingly opening to the idea of remote trials in some form. On the other hand, some judges remain steadfastly opposed to trials outside the physical courtroom, and with courthouses beginning to reopen in the coming weeks, it remains to be seen how common videoconference trials will become.
State trial courts in thirty New York counties are preparing to gradually reopen starting next week. Health precautions, including entry screening, masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing, will obviously be the norm.
Last week, the Texas appeals courts and judicial agencies suffered a ransomware attack that disabled their IT network for several days. The situation was caught quickly and state court administrators created a temporary website. Officials have stressed that no personal information was stolen, and that the attack had no effect on the courts’ use of online hearings in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Georgia’s state courts experienced a similar ransomware attack last July.
Although no harm seems to have come out of this latest incident, it does underscore the vulnerability of technological networks and the potential effect on the administration of justice.
In anticipation of a reopening on June 1, the North Carolina courts have asked attorneys to mail in their filings well in advance of that deadline. The court system expects a massive crunch in paperwork once it resumes full operations. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, filings are down 54% for the year, and case dispositions are down 65%.
While most states are delaying trials or holding them via videoconference, Oregon’s courts are continuing in-person jury trials for many criminal defendants. Social distancing guidelines have been put into place, but there is much trepidation on the part of jurors and observers alike.
“It is very unusual,” said Paula Hannaford-Agor, the director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit organization that supports state court systems. “To the best of my knowledge, Oregon has been the only state that I’m aware of that has been doing trials.”
Across the country some of the orders limiting or halting court functions are set to expire, Hannaford-Agor said, while others states have closures or limited court functions that extend until June and even July. Though Multnomah County has reopened trials, neighboring Clark County, Washington, has decided to delay all trials until at least July 6.
“Jury service is the very definition of community spread,” Hannaford-Agor said. “There’s probably no better way to spread the infection than putting anywhere from 50 to 300 people in a room together sitting side-by-side for hours at a time.”
In Oregon, many trials have been rescheduled. But for some criminal defendants who are in custody that’s not possible. Oregon law has less flexibility than other states when it comes to speedy trials and no emergency provision to delay them. In custody defendants get the right to a [trial] within 60 days of their arrest.
The federal judiciary has asked Congress for $36.6 million in supplemental funding to work through the coronavirus pandemic. The money would be used for cleaning courthouses, enhanced medical screening, information technology updates, and other IT infrastructure, among other things. The judiciary is also seeking new legislation to toll certain bankruptcy deadlines, add new temporary judgeships, and protect litigants and detainees from unnecessary coronavirus exposure.
The letter setting out the requests is here.
The Times of Israel has a wonderful long-form piece on the decision of Israel’s High Court of Justice to open its proceedings to videocameras, just in time for a contentious political and legal fight over the proposed creation of a new unity government. The story explains how the High Court — facing charges that it had become increasingly political and therefore untrustworthy — decided to open its deliberations to public view. A snippet:
The fears of contamination and spectacle have been overtaken by growing frustration that the court’s story was being told by others, by right-wing critics and left-wing moralists, that no one was left in the public debate to defend the court on its own terms, to argue its deliberations were earnest and exacting and its concerns legal rather than political.
And so Chief Justice Esther Hayut embarked on a “pilot” project in mid-April to broadcast many of the court’s hearings and deliberations to the outside world — just in time for the most contentious and politically significant hearings in the nation’s recent history.
The result has been a revelation. For the first time, Israelis could watch the proceedings in their entirety. And according to the Government Press Office that managed the broadcast, about a million Israelis watched the deliberations on Sunday and Monday — 130,000 just through the GPO servers, and the rest via the live broadcasts on all three major television channels and multiple online news outlets.
They watched the justices push back against all sides, saw their frustration with the sloppiness and grandstanding of the left-wing petitioners and their pinpoint questions to the representatives of the right that forced unexpected compromises.
Again and again, the justices interrupted attorneys’ speeches prepared not for the courtrooms but for the cameras.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, for the viewer as much as the viewed.
This story nicely illustrates how the New York court system absorbed the initial blow of coronavirus-related closings, and is now slowly reopening its civil docket via videoconference. The story is probably not an unusual one for state courts in this unusual time, but it seems worth logging some of them here for posterity.