A lot of people over the course of the last year have attended a virtual meeting through Zoom, Google Meet or some other provider, thanks to the COVID pandemic.
Virtual meetings became the way of the world for many businesses, including the Minnesota Judicial Branch.
During the height of the pandemic, the Minnesota Judicial Branch used remote hearing technology by way of virtual court proceedings to ensure access to justice while at the same time protecting the health and safety of judicial officers, court staff and all others involved in court cases.
Tom Jacobson, who is a partner with the law firm of Swenson, Lervick, Syverson, Trosvig, Jacobson and Cass in Alexandria and also the attorney for the cities of Alexandria, Parkers Prairie and Starbuck, said a moratorium was put on non-essential cases but that the court system had to figure out a way to still conduct business for essential cases. Virtual hearings, he said, were the way to go.
Jacobson said prosecutors, county attorneys and others were a part of the discussion led by the state to figure out how to proceed and make sure everyone received due process. Some of the decisions, he said, were locally based, while others were based on statewide orders.
The majority of uncontested judicial hearings were conducted virtually beginning in July of 2020, and according to Jacobson, were overwhelmingly supported.
According to the Minnesota Judicial Branch, about 81% of all district court hearings were conducted virtually from July through December of 2020. Since Jan. 1, 2021, more than 90% of all district court hearings have been conducted through virtual hearings.
Throughout the pandemic, the Judicial Branch conducted surveys and had discussions to gather feedback from court participants about the use of remote hearings via Zoom, Google Meet and other methods.
The feedback, according to information provided by Lissa Finne, communications specialist from the State Court Administrator’s Office, was, like Jacobson said, overwhelmingly positive. Through the surveys and discussions, it was found that there was strong support for the continued use of virtual hearings even after the pandemic subsides.
In January of this year, the Judicial Branch partnered with the Minnesota State Bar Association, the Minnesota Public Defender’s Office and the Minnesota County Attorneys Association to distribute a survey about virtual hearings. More than 600 attorneys completed the survey.
A question was asked about continuing to use remote technology for uncontested hearings after the pandemic and 93% of private attorneys said yes, it should be continued, while 78% of prosecutors said yes and 70% of public defenders said yes.
Judges, court staff and law clerks/court reporters were asked the same question and 79% of judges said yes, remote hearings should continue after the pandemic, while 86% of court staff said yes and 74% of law clerks/court reporters said yes. The survey was completed by 160 judges and 800 members of court staff across the state.
The Minnesota Judicial Branch also surveyed litigants, or the parties involved in lawsuits, about how they prefer to attend court hearings. This included surveys of callers to the Statewide Self-Help Center as well as surveying remote hearing participants in seven counties. Nearly 60% said remotely, while 25% said in-person and 16% said they didn’t know.
Waste of time?
Chris Karpan from Chris Karpan Law in Alexandria said virtual hearings were very new to most lawyers when COVID sent them down that path. He said prior to that, the only virtual hearings were from various jails across the state via closed circuit interactive television.
And like many aspects of COVID, some things worked great while others did not, he said.
Karpan said for the last 10 or so years he didn’t think twice about the process of his out-of-town hearings. For instance, if a case was in Stearns County, this is how his day would go: He would drive about an hour or so to Stearns County, find a parking spot, put money in the parking meter, go through a metal detector at the courthouse, take the elevator upstairs with a crowd of people, find the proper courtroom, walk in and then when it was his turn, tell the court his client was entering a not guilty plea. And within 30 seconds, he would be done and be walking back out of the courtroom.
For many hearings, Karpan said that was the norm, the routine.
“Now, having done those same hearings sitting at my desk in Alexandria staring at my computer, those half-day travel days seem like a colossal waste of time,” said Karpan. “So even though we’re slowly getting back to normal, I think the courts intend to continue to handle a lot of these simple hearings virtually.”
Easier to attend?
Karpan said people might think virtual hearings would make it easier for people to attend, but at least at first, he didn't think people were really taking it seriously. He said there were a lot of “no shows” because of the lack of formality.
The court issued plenty of no-show warrants either because people weren’t figuring out how to log in or were just ignoring their court hearings because there was a lot going on, Karpan said.
Jacobson said that not everyone has access to a smartphone or computer or they have limited internet access and/or maybe no Wi-Fi capabilities. This presented a problem, he said.
“If we expect people to show up to virtual hearings, we have to make sure they have access,” Jacobson said.
Karpan believes that virtual court hearings have their place.
“I think that the formality of the courtroom and the pomp and circumstance involved lets people know this is serious business,” he said. “It’s one of the few places left in American society where there is still decorum and rules. At least for 10 minutes, you better toe the line or you could end up on the bad side of a person in a black robe, and that’s not a good place to be.”
Jacobson said there needs to be a balance between giving people their day in court in a timely manner, making it convenient and still making sure people know being in court – whether in-person or virtually – is serious business.
From an efficiency standpoint, however, Jacobson said for some court proceedings, virtual hearings can work and there is definite potential. He said it allows attorneys from a private practice standpoint to reach a broader audience.
“We can help you without you having to pay for windshield time (traveling),” said Jacobson. “There are some definite benefits. But we also recognize there is a time and place for them.”
Mistakes can be made
With virtual court proceedings, things may not always go according to plan. There is a now internet-famous attorney who managed to turn himself into a cat via the program he was using to conduct business virtually.
Karpan said not only did making the change to virtual hearings have a financial impact as he had to invest in new equipment, there was a learning curve for the programs he was using.
He said a few months ago he had an unpleasant experience when trying to send a private chat message. He explains:
“In these virtual hearings, there can be dozens of people in separate windows, waiting for their case to be called. And you can send private chat messages to individuals in the ‘room’ or you can send messages to the entire ‘courtroom.’ Criminal defense attorneys, by their very nature, are smart alecks and, while I was conducting my hearing, a friend of mine from Fergus was giving me a hard time, messaging me that I was going to lose. The judge did not do what I asked in this situation and, in a moment of frustration, I typed a rather unpleasant word in capital letters and sent it back to the attorney who had been harassing me. Unfortunately, I forgot to look and make sure it was going just to him and it ended up going to everybody in the room, including the court reporter and court administrator.”
Karpan said the word would not be suited for print, but that he stayed in the virtual courtroom for an hour and a half after his hearing so that he could apologize to the judge because he knew the judge was going to find out.
“He thought it was hilarious and told me not to worry about it,” Karpan said. “But with other judges, I might have been conducting this interview from a jail cell.”