Judicial Conference authorizes federal courts to hold certain criminal proceedings electronically

Last week, Congress passed the CARES Act, which most notably was designed to give a push to the American economy in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Nestled within that Act was a provision that permitted the Judicial Conference of the United States to determine that “emergency conditions due to the national emergency declared by the President with respect to COVID-19 will materially affect the functioning of the federal courts generally.” Such a finding would then permit chief judges of individual federal district courts to temporarily authorize videoconferences or teleconferences in certain criminal proceedings, solely in response to the coronavirus crisis.

The Judicial Conference made that authorization on Sunday, leaving it now to individual districts to determine whether to implement videoconferencing. It is worth noting that the legislation (which was passed with significant input from the Judicial Conference) is relatively narrow, and applies only to the current COVID-19 emergency. Moreover, the general authorization applies only to certain types of criminal proceedings: in particular, no felony plea or sentencing could be done by video- or teleconference unless the district court makes additional findings that such proceedings (1) cannot be done in person “without seriously jeopardizing public health and safety”, and (2) that “there are specific reasons that the plea or sentencing in that case cannot be further delayed without serious harm to the interests of justice.”

This is an entirely practical step, representing collaboration between Congress and the courts to protect the efficient operation of the criminal justice system. Whether it will open the door for further use of videoconferencing in non-emergency situations, however, is very much unsettled. And the current legislation has drawn criticism in some circles that it reduces much-needed transparency in criminal justice.

Courts embracing video in wake of coronavirus pandemic

With coronavirus spreading worldwide, courts are increasingly closing their physical spaces and relying on video technology to keep the wheels of justice moving. The UK Supreme Court has equipped itself with high-definition cameras for livestreaming. In the US, both state and federal courts are effectively closing their courthouses and moving to videoconferencing for at least certain types of hearings.

Time will tell whether this shift portends a larger move to court-centered online dispute resolution, or whether courts will revert to their traditional courtroom operations once the health crisis is over. My sense is that it will be some of both. Courts are highly unlikely to jettison the social grandeur of the courthouse entirely, and of course no video can replace the physical intimacy of a jury trial or an evidentiary hearing. At the same time, courts would be wise to use this moment as an opportunity to craft a form of public online dispute resolution for appropriate types of cases — a form of resolution that is as (or more) effective, cheaper, and more trustworthy than private ODR.

There will be much more to say in this story as it develops. Stay healthy and sane, everyone.