The lawyer wasn’t sure whether to rise for the judge. The hearing was by videoconference, and standing up would show only his torso. The ruling: Remain seated.
Problems big, small and ridiculous have popped up as courts practice social distancing to manage the pandemic. The Florida judge who had to remind lawyers to put on a shirt. The unmuted dog who barked up a storm at a Texas bankruptcy hearing. The British receptionist whose phone rang off the hook after officials gave out the wrong number for
This week the U.S. Supreme Court said it would take the unprecedented step of
“Someone said recently we’ve seen more changes in the last four to 10 days than we saw in the last four to 10 years,” said
The federal courts have responded as well, offering the public and the news media online access to some virtual criminal proceedings. Amid the savaged economy, the
“It’s absolutely a wake-up call,” Greenberg said, “but also an inflection point where there’s no turning back.”
The bar association was already considering the challenges of delivering justice to rural areas, where lawyers are increasingly scarce, a problem in hinterlands across the country. In an April report, it urged the use of Skype for court appearances in civil cases and the expansion of broadband internet access for far-flung clients in a state that’s 80% rural, geographically.
Courts abroad, too, are likely to emerge from the tumult closer to modern times. There were 550 hearings in the U.K. using audio or video technology on March 23, the day Britain announced its social distancing lockdown, according to data published by the government on Tuesday. By April 6, the last day of the study, that figure had surged to nearly 3,000, or 85% of hearings. In Germany, where a judge in Berlin last month told a packed courtroom that one attendee with coronavirus could infect them all in 15 minutes, the shock of the pandemic may
Until that day, court by computer will be a little fraught, and occasionally a little weird, as lawyers and judges confront obstacles that never came up in law school.
The bail hearing for WikiLeaks founder Assange last month in London was beset by
“And putting on a beach cover-up won’t cover up you’re poolside in a bathing suit,” the judge added.
Some jurists just won’t have it. A Texas judge declined
Yet the courts couldn’t just carry on.
Before New York state criminal trials were halted last month, a lawyer arriving at a Manhattan courthouse running a fever quarantined himself in a conference room and called in to the trial. The judge explained the situation to the jurors, assuring them the attorney “feels well enough to represent his client by speaker phone.”
The lawyer proceeded to cross-examine a witness from three floors away, prompting one court officer to observe, “This all sounds made up,” according to The Guardian. The judge declared a mistrial after the lawyer was overcome with a coughing fit.
“Let me just put on the record, the father came to court head to toe in full hazmat gear, full booties, full outfit with gloves, hood and a mask,” she said, according to Page Six.
Samuel Feldman, a lawyer for Michel, declined to comment.
Some state court systems see an important future role for the technologies currently getting them through the pandemic.
New York’s massive system, which handles about 3.5 million new cases a year, has long used videoconferencing in bedside arraignments of hospitalized criminal defendants and for mental health hearings, among other applications of technology, said Chief Administrative Judge
“I hope there will be much more reliance upon technology” after the crisis “and that judges and lawyers become more comfortable, especially holding routine conferences this way,” Marks said. He said the state’s extensive virtual setup will help prepare its courts for what he expects will be a flood of lawsuits in the pandemic’s wake.
Michigan bought Zoom videoconference licenses for its judges a year ago, said Chief Justice
“This is the disruption that our industry needed, even if it wasn’t the disruption that our industry wanted,” McCormack said at a remote conference on the subject last week. Catapulting the courts into the 21st century is “sort of not in our DNA,” she said, but it’s crucial.
An online dispute resolution system currently running in 17 of Michigan’s 83 counties helps people hold down child care expenses and the costs of missing work to make court appearances, McCormack said in an interview Tuesday.
“We’re going to be able to take the best of what we’re learning with us,” she said.
--With assistance from Alex Wolf,
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