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Courts Got Creative During the Pandemic – Here’s What Stuck

Courts around the country got creative during the pandemic, moving clerks’ support onto Zoom, offering self-serve hearing scheduling on Doodle and taking judges and court sessions on the road, and the river.

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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.

One lesson that emerged: When navigating these new waters, don’t wait on finding the perfect digital tools — just start trying something and see what works, said Judge Clemens Landau of the Salt Lake City Judicial Court.

“If you get the minimum viable product out, you will eventually get the maximum out,” Clemens said during the National Center for State Court’s (NCC) Court Technology Conference (CTC) 2021. “It’s important to say, ‘Yeah this has flaws, but compare it to what we were doing before: That had flaws, too.’ There’s always flaws, but let’s get something out and work toward something.”

COMMON TOOLS


Clemens’ court had postponed thousands of cases during its four months of closure. As the team readied in June 2020 for reopening, orders poured in calling for accelerated processing on many of these.

“[Those cases] were all going to crush us starting July 1,” Clemens said.

Just scheduling the hearings was going to be a problem. The court simply didn’t have the capacity to handle all those stakeholders calling in to book court dates, and it didn’t always have the contact information needed to set up the hearings itself.

The solution? Pick a common scheduling tool, link it on the court website and see what happens.

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, Clemens said they decided simply to try it.

“I said, ‘Well, no one's got any better ideas.’ So, we just went ahead and did that,” he said.

“It did not go smoothly at the beginning,” Clemens 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 traction against the daunting scheduling problem. The virtual schedules quickly filled, and Clemens’ court continues to use the offering.

VIRTUAL CLERK’S COUNTER


Judicial teams have needed to be sensitive to constituents' different levels of technological familiarity as they try to provide digital hearings and services. That work includes being ready to guide residents through.

Nicole Evans, court administrator for a district court in East Lansing, Mich., said 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 who called or video streamed in.

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 under a lower stakes’ situation than an official hearing.

The Zoom waiting room landing page also turned out to be a useful way to get information out, with the court posting its emails and hours on the display.

COURT GOES ON THE ROAD, AND THE RIVER


Not all residents can easily access video conferences, however, and taking hearings remote can mean physically bringing court to them.

Clemens 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, and Clemens 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.

“The first canoe is always the public defenders, the second canoe is usually Kim, who’s a social worker, then some service providers and then the last canoe is the judge with a bailiff to call the case and everyone else is on Webex,” he explained.

LOW- AND HIGH-TECH COMMUNICATIONS


Adopting new methods is one thing — ensuring constituents are aware of them is another.

Courthouse closures 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 Clemens, one answer was joining social media, where his posts reached attorneys who would spread the word to their own clients.

“These [social media accounts] are all things that I think judges view with some fear, because you just don't want to be seen as impartial,” Clemens noted, but the pandemic shifted that calculus.

Still, relying on the Internet alone would overlook those without easy access, and Clemens 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.
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.