Virtual court proceedings will likely continue in Douglas County after pandemic ends
Virtual meetings have become the way of the world for many businesses, including the Minnesota judicial branch.
At the height of the pandemic, the Minnesota judicial branch used remote hearing technology through virtual court proceedings to ensure access to justice while protecting the health and safety of court officers, staff judiciary and all other persons involved in legal matters.
Tom Jacobson, a partner at the law firm of Swenson, Lervick, Syverson, Trosvig, Jacobson and Cass in Alexandria and also a lawyer for the cities of Alexandria, Parkers Prairie and Starbuck, said a moratorium has been imposed on non-essential cases . but that the justice system had to find a way to continue doing business on essential matters. Virtual hearings, he said, were the way to go.
Jacobson said prosecutors, county attorneys and others were part of the state’s discussion to figure out how to proceed and ensure everyone has due process. Some of the decisions, he said, were based locally, while others were based on statewide orders.
The majority of the undisputed court hearings were conducted virtually from July 2020 and, according to Jacobson, were overwhelmingly supported.
According to the Minnesota Judicial Branch, approximately 81% of all district court hearings were conducted virtually from July to December 2020. As of January 1, 2021, more than 90% of all district court hearings were conducted through virtual audiences.
Throughout the pandemic, the judiciary has conducted investigations and had discussions to gather feedback from court participants on the use of remote hearings through Zoom, Google Meet, and other methods.
The comments, according to information provided by Lissa Finne, communications specialist in the Office of the Administrator of the State Court, were, as Jacobson said, overwhelmingly positive. Through polls and discussions, it was found that there was strong support for the continued use of virtual hearings even after the pandemic had ended.
In January of this year, the judicial branch teamed up with the Minnesota State Bar Association, the Minnesota Public Defender’s Office, and the Minnesota County Attorneys Association to release a survey of virtual hearings. Over 600 lawyers responded to the survey.
A question was asked about the continued use of remote technology for uncontested hearings after the pandemic and 93% of private lawyers said yes it should be continued, while 78% of prosecutors said yes and 70% of public defenders said yes.
The same question was asked of judges, court staff and court clerks / reporters and 79% of judges said yes, remote hearings should continue after the pandemic, while 86% of court staff said yes and 74 % of clerks / stenotypists said yes. The investigation was completed by 160 judges and 800 court staff across the state.
The Minnesota judicial branch has also questioned litigants, or parties involved in lawsuits, about how they prefer to attend court hearings. This included surveys of Statewide Self-Help Center callers as well as surveys of remote hearing participants in seven counties. Almost 60% said remotely, while 25% said in person and 16% said they didn’t know.
Chris Karpan of Chris Karpan Law in Alexandria said virtual hearings were very new to most lawyers when COVID sent them down this route. He said that prior to that, the only virtual audiences came from various state prisons via interactive closed-circuit television.
And like many aspects of COVID, some things have worked really well while others haven’t, he said.
Karpan said that in the past 10 years or so, he had not thought twice about the process of his out of town hearings. For example, if a case was in Stearns County, this is how his day would go: he would drive about an hour to Stearns County, find a parking spot, put money in the meter, go through a metal detector at the courthouse, get on the elevator with a crowd of people, find the appropriate courtroom, enter and, when it was their turn, tell the court that his client was pleading not guilty. And within 30 seconds, he would have finished and walked out of the courtroom.
For many hearings, Karpan said this was the norm, the routine.
“Now, having done these same audiences sitting at my desk in Alexandria looking at my computer, these half-day travel days seem like a colossal waste of time,” Karpan said. “So even as we slowly get back to normal, I think the courts intend to continue to virtually manage many of these simple hearings. “
Karpan said people might think virtual audiences would make it easier for people to participate, but at least initially he didn’t think people really took him seriously. He said there was a lot of “no shows” because of the lack of formality.
The court issued numerous no-show warrants, either because people didn’t know how to log in or because they were simply skipping their hearings because there was a lot going on, Karpan said.
Jacobson said not everyone has access to a smartphone or computer or they have limited internet access and / or maybe no Wi-Fi capability. This has been a problem, he said. he says.
“If we expect people to show up to virtual hearings, we need to make sure they have access to them,” said Jacobson.
Karpan believes that virtual audiences have their place.
“I think the formality of the courtroom and the pomp and circumstances involved let people know this is serious business,” he said. “It’s one of the few places that remains in American society where there is still decorum and rules. At least for 10 minutes, you better follow the line or you might end up on the wrong side of someone in a black dress, 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 that being in court – whether in person or virtually – is serious business.
From an efficiency standpoint, however, Jacobson said that for some court proceedings, virtual hearings can work and there is definite potential. He said this allows lawyers from a private practice perspective to reach a wider audience.
“We can help you without paying for windshield time (travel),” Jacobson said. “There are definite advantages. But we also recognize that there is a time and a place for them.
With virtual court proceedings, things may not always go as planned. There is a now famous lawyer on the Internet who managed to transform himself into a cat through the program he used to do business virtually.
Karpan said that not only did the switch to virtual audiences have a financial impact as he had to invest in new equipment, but there was a learning curve for the programs he used.
He said a few months ago that he had an unpleasant experience trying to send a private chat message. He explains:
“In these virtual hearings, there may be dozens of people in separate windows, waiting for their cases to be called. And you can send private chat messages to people in the “room” or you can send messages to the whole “courtroom”. Criminal defense attorneys by their very nature are smart clever people, and while I was conducting my hearing a friend of mine from Fergus was giving me a hard time saying I was going to lose. The judge didn’t do what I asked in this situation, and in a moment of frustration, I typed a pretty nasty word in all caps and sent it back to the lawyer who harassed me. Unfortunately, I forgot to watch and make sure it went right to him and it ended up going to everyone in the room including the court reporter and the court administrator.
Karpan said the word would not be suitable for printing, but remained in the virtual courtroom for an hour and a half after his hearing so he could apologize to the judge as he knew the judge would find out.
“He thought it was hilarious and told me not to care,” Karpan said. “But with other judges, I might have conducted this interview from a prison cell.”