Alaska’s court system was hit by a malware attack this week. The problem was caught quickly, which prevented significant damage. Nevertheless, certain public features on the court system’s website–including the ability to search court cases and view Zoom hearings–were temporarily taken offline.
The situation is reminiscent of the Solar Winds cyberattack that hit the federal courts earlier thisyear, as well as the ransomware attack that affected the Texas court system last May.
The lesson: whether you wear a robe, a suit, or elastic pants to work, give thanks to your IT Department today.
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.
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.
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.