Several courts are beginning to announce that technological changes made at the start of the coronavirus pandemic will remain for the foreseeable future. Top judicial leaders in many states have concluded that “Zoom courts are here to stay,” and are working to update their infrastructure. In addition, Ohio will continue holding webinars in lieu of court-mandated live parenting classes, and will improve the tech connection between courthouses and county jails. Meanwhile, Maine has issued official guidance for those who want to watch remote hearings, and is seeking federal funds to further update its technological capabilities.
I generally detest the philosophy of “never let a crisis go to waste,” which too often exploits catastrophes to satisfy a partisan wish list. But this is something far more organic, and the American courts will come out of this pandemic stronger and more flexible for having survived this technological trial by fire.
As the summer passes its midpoint, debates are raging in every corner of the country about how to approach the coming school year. Some feel that reopening schools will place teachers and students at unacceptable risk; others note that the mental and emotional damage to children from continued social isolation requires every effort to conduct classes in person. On two points, however, everyone seems to be in agreement. First, no option is particularly good. And second, even if schools do reopen, their layout, schedule, and operation will be markedly different than before.
Courts are facing the identical crisis, as their social and constitutional responsibilities to administer justice without delay brush up against their responsibilities to protect public health. And those courts that have reopened look and feel very different than they did six months ago.
This article points out some of the changes that have been implemented in reopened state courthouses. They feel at once dramatic and mundane: requiring attorneys and clients to communicate only by passing notes through a plexiglass window, holding trials in convention centers (or even fairgrounds!), and asking attorneys and judges to hold sidebars by walkie-talkie (with white noise pumped into the courtroom to avoid others overhearing). And notwithstanding these changes, the general fear of COVID-19 exposure remains pervasive.
This is all deeply unsettling, yet there may be a silver lining. Although unwelcome, the pandemic is forcing an explosion of creativity in our institutions. Some of today’s courthouse solutions may be jettisoned as soon as it is safe to do so, but I also suspect that some will prove worthy of keeping around.
Court administrators have had to act nimbly during the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic, in order to balance public safety with the requirements of due process. Now, some county courts in Oregon are considering yet another creative solution: holding jury trials at local fairgrounds in order to meet the requirements of social distancing.
The fairgrounds are already owned by the respective counties where trials might be held. They are easy to get to, have ample parking, and offer wide-open and largely unused buildings, making them an attractive option for courts. Still, there are many logistics that have yet to be worked out:
So far in Deschutes County, court officials have developed lists of what will be needed at the fairgrounds. On the to-do list is to look at the costs of renting tents and other furnishings like chairs, tables, maybe a riser to put a bench up on.
Heating, air conditioning and restrooms will be needed to keep people comfortable, because jurors need to be focused only on listening to the evidence, Ashby said. Secure and private rooms are needed for lawyers to meet with clients and jurors and judges to deliberate. Boxes and boxes of computer and recording equipment must be relocated and tied in with the county IT system and the fairgrounds PA system. Security is another primary concern.
“Our number one priority is making the courthouse as safe as humanly possible,” Ashby said. “Competing with that are statutory timelines, which require us to try cases, the most pressing of which are in-custody criminal defendants.”
Plans like this are born of necessity, but it will be fascinating to see what courts learn from the experience, and how some of these options might influence court administration after the pandemic subsides.
On June 25, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held a hearing entitled Federal Courts During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Best Practices, Opportunities for Innovation, and Lessons for the Future. The hearings featured testimony (via Zoom, of course) from federal district judge David Campbell, Michigan Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, former federal district judge (and current Executive Director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute), and Melissa Wasser of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The testimony was interesting, as was the choice of witnesses. The entire hearing (all 102 minutes of it) can be found directly below, with some thoughts on what transpired to follow.
Continue reading “Making sense of the recent Congressional testimony on courts and technology”
A number of recent news stories have emphasized the reluctance of many white-collar workers to go back to the office, even when their places of business are authorized to reopen. Extensive safety precautions, combined with the ability of many employees to work effectively from home, has even led some to proclaim the death of the modern office.
As admirable a job as courts have done with videoconferencing during the coronavirus pandemic, they do not have the same luxury of transitioning everyone to a long-term work-from-home arrangement. And so courts are reopening around the country. And they are finding difficult challenges in front of them. Safety and social distancing guidelines means that there is less space for observers and unsettled questions about enforcement of safety norms. Returning judges and attorneys are also facing heavily backlogged dockets and the further postponement of trials and hearings. It will require patience and creativity to get things back on an even keel.
As communities across the United States slowly reopen for business, courthouses are following suit. Extensive precautions and protocols are in place. I have periodically tracked how some court systems have begun their reopening processes, and here is one more: New Mexico resumes jury trials with masks, plexiglass, and cameras.
If these stories seem repetitive, it is only because I am trying to capture a taste of a very unusual time in our history. Many of the lessons to be drawn from this experience will only emerge after a period of reflection and analysis.
The federal courts’ COVID-19 Judicial Task Force released a detailed report on Wednesday, containing recommendations for conducting jury trials and convening grand juries during the coronavirus pandemic. This Bloomberg Law piece provides a bit of additional context.
The report relies on guidance from the Center for Disease Control, and acknowledges that district courts may be ready to open, and open more fully, at different times during the next few weeks. It is a careful, detailed, and thoughtful report. It also illustrates the complex issues that virtually every organization — public or private — is facing right now regarding reopening: cleaning, social distancing, virus screening, transparency, scheduling, travel safety, and so on. Ask any school administrator, business owner, local bureaucrat, or public official, and you’ll hear about the same predictive difficulties.
The bottom line: courts are navigating this crisis just like the rest of us. Preparation is essential, but only time will provide real clarity.
As courthouses across the country slowly begin to reopen, individual federal district courts are wrestling with the best way — if at all — to convene grand juries for criminal cases. Bloomberg Law has a good article exploring some of the approaches that different courts are taking. Among them: holding grand jury proceedings in the courthouse with social distancing, holding proceedings entirely online, and simply waiting to convene grand juries until the situation improves.
Each approach obviously has strengths and weaknesses. There are the obvious health concerns about bringing people into a building. But there are also important countervailing considerations. Purely online proceedings may not allow for a fair cross-section of the community, since essential workers and those without adequate internet access (among others) may not be able to participate. At the same time, simply waiting for the pandemic to subside is inconsistent with the efficient administration of justice. As time passes, memories fade and witnesses become harder to find.
So there is no simple answer here. But a system in which courts have the discretion to tailor their approaches allows court leaders to collectively learn from their successes and setbacks.
Law360 has a good, general article on how the courts in Massachusetts are embracing virtual hearings in light of the coronavirus pandemic. This segment struck me as particularly interesting:
Like most jurisdictions, Massachusetts has embraced virtual hearings. It’s a development that [U.S. District] Judge [Dennis] Saylor, who took over as chief judge in January, is pleased to see.
“One of my goals was to try to drag the court into the 21st century in terms of video and telephone conferences, and a lot of my colleagues, both locally and nationwide, have been reluctant to do anything over the phone or by video,” he said. “One of the most expensive and problematic things about practicing law is getting in your car from Danvers or flying to Kansas City for a five-minute status conference.
“A silver lining in all of this is we have rapidly developed not only our video capabilities, but also people’s comfort with it, because no one has any choice.”
I have heard similar comments from state judges across the country, and it seems inevitable that certain types of minor hearings will be held via videoconference even after the pandemic ends. As Chief Judge Saylor notes, this is a very good thing.
The bigger question is how the courts will address the right of public access to court proceedings in the context of videoconferencing. There are legitimate concerns about whether the current technology is well-equipped to incorporate public access, but the larger issue will not–and should not–go away. The court systems that take the lead on integrating public access into videoconferencing will be particularly well positioned once the pandemic subsides.
A snippet from a fascinating Law360 article, which notes that a temporary ban on jury trials combined with a judicial vacancy rate over 10% does not bode well for access to justice in the Garden State:
“My fear is the backlog of trials … whenever jury trials start again, is going to require so much attention from the judges that it’s probably going to have an effect on how other matters proceed in terms of motions and things that normally would be getting done sooner rather than later,” said Keith McDonald of Norris McLaughlin PA.