As the pandemic swept in during spring 2020, many courts temporarily suspended jury trials and postponed nonemergency hearings, limited access to courthouse facilities and sent home nonessential workers. Judicial teams around the country scrambled to find ways to translate their processes beyond the courthouse doors and ensure they could still serve both tech-savvy residents and those with little digital access. Courts couldn’t afford to leave residents unserved while officials searched for the ideal digital tools, so one lesson emerged: When navigating these new waters, don’t wait on finding the perfect answer — just start trying something, see what works and make changes from there.
This point of view comes from Judge Clemens Landau of the Salt Lake City Judicial Court, speaking at the National Center for State Courts’ (NCSC) Court Technology Conference (CTC) in late 2021. “If you get the minimum viable product out, you will eventually get the maximum out,” he said. “ … There’s always flaws, but let’s get something out and work toward something.”
This spirit of experimentation has taken hold in many courts. And a lot of this has produced what may become permanent changes.
Judge Landau’s court postponed thousands of cases during its four months of closure in early 2020. As the team readied in June 2020 for reopening, orders poured in calling for accelerated processing on many of them.
“[Those cases] were all going to crush us starting July 1,” Landau said. The solution? Pick a common online scheduling tool, link it on the court website and see what happens. Utah State Judicial Branch CIO Heidi Anderson suggested using Doodle to allow site visitors to schedule hearings. Rather than a protracted search for the perfect, tailored tool, Landau said they decided simply to try it.
“It did not go smoothly at the beginning,” Landau admitted, “but it was a way of interfacing with thousands of people who needed to get their cases moving along.”
The court spent roughly $60 on two accounts, and customized settings so constituents would be asked to provide details like contact information, need for interpreter and whether they had an attorney. Adopting a general-use software proved to have added benefits: Many residents were already familiar with how it worked. And above all, selecting a tool let the court start making progress against the daunting scheduling problem. The virtual schedules quickly filled, and Landau’s court continues to use the tool.
Not all residents can easily access video conferences, however, and taking hearings remote can mean physically bringing court to them. Landau said efforts to serve homeless constituents have involved judges and public defenders taking their laptops and setting up in pop-up canopies and vans in parking lots near encampments, out of which they offer services.
This isn’t the only mobile court effort, either. Landau said court officials periodically set out in canoes and kayaks to reach the unsheltered population living along the riverbanks. Judicial staff bring hot spots and laptops to let other participants join virtually.
Adopting new methods is only one part of the battle — ensuring constituents are aware of them is another. Along with finding different ways to hold court, judicial teams have had to find different ways to communicate with residents. Courthouse closures also forced staff to adopt new methods for getting the word out about new digital methods and other updates. Judges couldn’t assume residents would be regularly checking court websites. For Landau, one answer was joining social media, where his posts reached attorneys who would spread the word to their own clients.
Still, relying on the Internet alone would overlook those without easy access, and Landau said his team also resorted to duct-taping printed information sheets to the courthouse windows to reach a wider audience. Court personnel also set up an unused police RV outside the courthouse during the early days of the pandemic to talk with anyone who hadn’t heard about the closures and still showed up for hearings.
Adopting new technology has allowed some courts to expand their work, too. The Pima County, Ariz., Family Drug Court (FDC) program, for example, switched to remote, Microsoft Teams-based hearings and found this allowed personnel not only to continue supporting parents, but also to serve more and different participants than they had pre-pandemic, said case and recovery specialists during an NCSC-coordinated dicussion.
Pima County’s FDC offers a voluntary program for parents who have lost legal custody of their children due to struggles with alcohol or other drug use. The Department of Child Safety requires parents to attend one session, after which they can choose whether to go through an intake interview and enroll. If they do, they’ll attend regular court sessions as they progress through goals designed to help them recover and win back custody.
The move to digital didn’t just change how the court met — it shifted the entire flow of the day, said Linda Perry, lead recovery support specialist at the Pima County FDC. “Our format prior to COVID was we had three hearings throughout the day,” Perry said. “Now it’s chunked out to 20-minute blocks scattered throughout the day.”
Allowing participants to connect in from anywhere helped parents who otherwise might need to secure child care and make long treks into court, said Pima County FDC case specialist Heather Armstrong. “So that’s essentially a half day to come to a short hearing,” Armstrong said.
Given those benefits, she’d like to continue offering virtual attendance as a perk for participants who’ve been keeping up well with the program requirements. The flexibility and brevity of remote sessions also lifted barriers that had stopped people from joining the program at all. The now-digital FDC saw a surge of enrollment from employed men, for example, whose work schedules often prevent them appearing in person, Armstrong said.
There were other surprise successes, too: The percentage of people who make their appointments for intake interviews also rose over pre-pandemic levels after the court started conducting them by phone — a practice Armstrong said the FDC intends to continue.
But at the same time, the new schedules and virtual format has meant weakening the sense of community and camaraderie that comes from being in a room with other participants going through similar journeys. “It’s a big difference being on video when they’re getting kudos for a milestone reached …. It’s a different feeling than when you’ve got a roomful of peers behind you also joining in on that,” Perry said.
Retaining an emotional connection with participants is also important for court staff trying to encourage parents to discuss details of their situations, said Pima County Juvenile Court Commissioner Ken Sanders, who presides over the FDC program. “You have to try even harder … to get them to open up and talk about their successes as well as their struggles,” Sanders said.
There won’t be a one-size-fits-all answer to this. Some participants are actually more inclined to speak up at remote meetings, finding them “less intimidating,” according to a currently unpublished study conducted by NCSC.
Principal Court Management Consultant Teri Deal added that this same study showed widespread support for the view that certain sensitive processes — like termination of parental rights — should only be conducted in person. Eighty-three percent of 1,919 caseworker respondents and 66 percent of 111 attorneys held this view, Deal told Government Technology.
Courts trying to find ways to connect well remotely have plenty of practical questions to consider, and Deal said her observations of child welfare hearings have found each court — and even courtroom — puts its own spin on the practices. Some courts’ virtual hearings relied on security camera footage that showed the top of the judges’ heads, while others had judges using laptop cameras that recorded their faces, for example. Courts also varied over whether all participants, just the judge or a mix of the two were made visible on camera.
Overall, though, many judges prefer having participants on video, allowing judges to read facial expressions and contextual clues, Deal said. But the nature and quality of the videos could potentially influence how participants are regarded, Deal warned. Many parents told NCSC that they use smartphones to join hearings, but mobile device footage is often shakier than that from stationary laptops, which court personnel are more likely to use, for example.
Courts must be sensitive to how unconscious biases might arise if only one attendee joins without video, while everyone else can see each other’s faces. “Does that cause us to think and feel differently about a person because they’re in one box with their name on it compared to all of us having our cameras on?” Deal said.
Judicial teams also need to respond to constituents’ different levels of technological familiarity. Nicole Evans, court administrator for a district court in East Lansing, Mich., said during the NCSC CTC event that her team didn’t just make hearings virtual but also clerks’ office hours. Personnel who normally would be on-call at a counter in the physical facility instead began staffing a virtual “court counter” on Zoom, to meet one-on-one with residents. This allowed clerks to keep answering questions about everything from how to contest a traffic ticket to how to make payments, while also giving residents a taste of the platform in a lower stakes situation than an official hearing.
These creative approaches to conducting court operations in new ways suggest tech has a strong role to play in broadening access to judicial proceedings and programs, and underscores the importance of approaching these adoptions with digital equity in mind.
This story originally appeared in Government Technology, and appears here as part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.