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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.