Minnesota’s federal court will continue with Zoom trials even after COVID

In an interview with Law360, Chief Judge John Tunheim of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota said that his district will continue with civil trials over Zoom even after the coronavirus pandemic no longer makes them necessary. A snippet of the interview:

Our plan at this point is to resume jury trials, and in-person hearings to the extent necessary, on May 3. All of our staff will be vaccinated and beyond the two-week period following the second shot, so we think that by May 1 we should be in pretty good shape for jurors coming in.

I do plan to continue, and urge our other judges to continue, to do as many hearings on Zoom as possible. It’s worked really, really well, and we’re still not in a position where we want a lot of people coming into the courthouse.

I think using Zoom is a very effective tool for bench trials. For jury trials it’s a little more complicated, as we know. But we have a backlog of civil cases that we’re probably not going to get to right away because of the criminal case backlog. We are, for the time being, using only two courtrooms, one in Minneapolis, one in St. Paul, both with substantial amounts of plexiglass. Only using two courtrooms makes it hard to catch up.

I expect to see much more along these lines in the coming weeks and months.

How will virtual trials affect the appellate process?

That’s the question posed in this excellent article from Law360. A snippet:

Lawyers who engage in virtual trials need to anticipate that eventuality and do everything they can to minimize errors that can occur because of technology, as well as preserve their objections properly and quickly during virtual proceedings, [attorney Carl] Guthrie said.

“We should always be one step ahead and prepared for what happens … if an appellate court does look at it,” he said.

Courts that have been broadcasting their proceedings usually include a warning that recording is prohibited, but those warnings aren’t always heeded. One example is the recent viral video of the lawyer who was unable to remove a cat filter and told a court, “I’m not a cat.” The video preserving that moment included in black and white font a prohibition against recording.

But more broadly, Guthrie said that in virtual proceedings, evidentiary gaffes are some of the easiest to make — and can be the most damaging. Accidentally showing exhibits to jurors before they’ve been admitted by the judge, for example, is an easily reversible error, he noted.

Virtual hearings and trials are assuredly here to stay, at least in some form, after the pandemic subsides. It’s good that lawyers and judges are getting out in front of these issues.

 

About that cat video…

The viral sensation of the week is this video from a virtual hearing in a Texas state court:

The apparent backstory is that the lawyer’s secretary sometimes brings her children to the office, and one of them was using the office computer and installed the cat filter without telling anyone. And we can all relate: just two days ago my young son was using my computer for a Zoom playdate, and that evening I logged into my class from what appeared to be low-earth orbit. (Fortunately, I was able to switch the background pretty quickly.)

Still, I love how the judge handled the situation. Faced with an absurd and unexpected event, he showed extraordinary patience and grace — in fact, it was the judge himself who guided the lawyer through the steps of removing the filter. Moreover, the judge’s behavior was exactly what we should expect of judges. The fact that his dignified handling of the matter has gone viral may have the marginal benefit of reminding the public that courts are overwhelmingly serious, professional, and dignified places.

Kudos to Judge Bauer, and all involved, for injecting professionalism into a moment of absurdity.

Defendant seeks delay of major patent trial due to COVID

The primary defendant in a major patent case pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware has requested a delay of its scheduled trial due to concerns about conducting an in-person trial while COVID-19 rages on.

3G Licensing sued LG Electronics and others more than four years ago, alleging infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,212,662. The patent concerns a method and devices for detecting transmission errors in data streams. Trial is scheduled for April, but in a letter to the court LG’s counsel worried about the ability to get a representative jury in the midst of a pandemic.

Courts have struggled to deal with trials during the coronvirus surge, with most delaying in-person trials or attempting to conduct them over video. Notwithstanding tireless efforts to assure due process and transparency for all parties, reactions to the videoconferenced trials have been mixed. At some point this year, courts should return in earnest to in-person trials (and will likely have a serious backlog to deal with). But it’s not fully clear whether that moment will come as soon as April.

Colorado’s Chief Justice on court operations, judicial selection, and experiential diversity

The Colorado Springs Gazette has a terrific short interview with the state’s Chief Justice, Brian Boatright, on a wide variety of issues related to court operations and interdependence. Here is a taste:

[Q]: Is there any change during the COVID-19 era that you believe the Supreme Court couls permanently incorporate into its work post-pandemic?

Boatright: I believe that we will incorporate the practice of allowing attorneys to make oral argument remotely in certain circumstances. The pandemic has taught us that oral arguments can be efficient and effective wheh done virtually. I expect that attorneys who previously has to travel significant distances to present their arguments will want to take advantage of that option. Hopefully, that flexibility will reduce costs for their clients.

Chief Justice Boatright also discusses experiential diversity on the court, the role of collegiality, and the benefits of Colorado’s judicial selection system. It’s well worth a full read.

 

Chief Justice issues 2020 Year End Report

Per longstanding tradition, while you were anxiously coaxing 2020 into oblivion last night, the Chief Justice quietly issued his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Also per tradition, this year’s report features more musty anecdotes about the courts, this time focused (predictably) on pandemics. The Chief Justice congratulates the entire court system on its turn to video hearings and trials in the wake of the COVID-19 spread.

Kudos are indeed in order for reacting relatively swiftly, but I will save my formal congratulations for when the federal courts embrace technology with foresight and a commitment to transparency. Here’s an area where the federal courts could learn much from their state counterparts, if they are willing.

Scotland will hold jury trials in movie theaters

Courts across the world are continuing to think creatively in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Some Scottish courts will now be holding socially distanced jury trials in movie theaters, where the 15-person juries can spread out, watch the presentation of testimony and evidence on the big screen, and then deliberate in person.

This follows similar efforts in the UK and US to use large open spaces for trials, including fairgrounds and convention centers. While we all look forward to the day when trials are back in a proper courtroom, the efforts to keep the wheels of justice turning are surely praiseworthy.

COVID’s silent victim in the courts: traditional due process

Gothamist has a really nice piece by Beth Fertig about socially distanced trials in a Brooklyn Housing Court. Even with Herculean efforts on the part of judges and court staff, these trials are a mess. Lawyers and clients cannot sit next to each other. Entire courthouses have been deemed too small to hold any trials. Members of the public cannot view the trial because of social distancing restrictions. It just feels…weird.

The story underscores how deeply procedural fairness is built into a traditional trial. Under ordinary circumstances, trials would be open to the public and the media. Parties would sit with their lawyers and confer with them throughout the process. In jury trials, simply being in the courtroom would place pressure on jurors to pay close attention to the arguments and evidence. Lawyers would be able to confront witnesses without any fear that they are being coached by someone off-camera. There would be a strong sense of both party involvement and public transparency.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced courts to choose strategies that weaken one or both of these values. In-person, socially distanced trials allow some form of party involvement, including confronting witnesses. But they forfeit much of the transparency that benefits both the public and the parties. By contrast, videoconferenced trials are more amenable to public view, but raise problems for parties who lack the proper technology, or whose homes are more chaotic or challenging than the august, stoic nature of the courtroom.

All this is to say that the sooner we can get back to regular courtroom proceedings, the better. And in the meantime, we should be more cognizant of the due process considerations that are already so carefully built into our traditional trial structure.

ABA passes resolution on remote court proceedings

The American Bar Association House of Delegates has passed a resolution regarding the use of remote proceedings. The resolution attempts to balance the courts’ need to move forward with their dockets, parties’ entitlement to due process, and the public right to access. Some key points:

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that any authorization of mandatory use of virtual and remote court proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic continue for as short a time as possible and in no event longer than the duration of the declaration of emergency issued in the jurisdiction;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that use of virtual or remote court proceedings be permitted when litigants have consented to the use of such procedures, including being offered a delay until a safe, in-person proceeding can be held;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that all virtual or remote court proceedings be tailored to the needs of participants and take into account the type of case and proceeding to be conducted, the participants involved, and whether participants are likely to be represented by counsel…

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that advance notice be provided to the public of all virtual or remote proceedings and that full and meaningful public access to such proceedings be guaranteed, while also protecting the privacy of those proceedings legally exempted from public access…

The entire resolution can be found here.

Pandemic-induced court changes will remain long-term

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.