When the pandemic started, US courts made adjustments to prevent the spread of the virus. Virtual hearings became the norm, and courts used technology to ensure the justice system remained accessible to the public. By August, courts started in-person hearings with some adjustments to protect the people’s health while ensuring the constitutional rights of everyone were upheld.
Here are some changes that happened in the US justice system during the pandemic.
Health Measures Taken
Even as some jurisdictions resumed in-person proceedings, the courts implemented physical distancing measures to safeguard the health of everyone present in the courtroom. With this, the courts required everyone to be six feet away from everyone else. It was also necessary to regularly clean the courtrooms. Some courtrooms set up plexiglass barriers, and the jurors wore face shields.
Even with these precautions, the courts faced challenges due to the health crisis. In one hearing, both the defendant and his lawyer exhibited symptoms of the virus. With this, some legal defender services opposed the reopening of in-person court proceedings since it can put the health of the lawyers, clients, and court employees at risk.
Some courts also changed their layouts to reduce the risk of infection. Federal court staff in Manhattan had to fill out online health survey forms and have their temperature taken before entering the building. Some courts paid for parking lots so people can avoid commuting when going to the courtroom.
In some courts, the number of people riding the elevator at one time was limited. Protective masks became mandatory, and everyone had to use disinfectant before entering the courtroom. Headsets also allowed lawyers to talk with their clients confidentially while maintaining a safe distance from each other. All these measures had the goal of ensuring the safety of everyone in the courtroom.
Use of Technology
While some courts started in-person proceedings, others continued to use technology for legal proceedings. In one courtroom, the judge was in the courtroom alone since everyone participated in the proceedings virtually. The litigant and the lawyers joined the proceeding virtually. Similarly, the law clerks, court reporters, and even the jurors who decide the case participated in the proceedings using video conferencing apps. Several courts also conducted bench trials using video conference applications.
Many state and federal courts used virtual court proceedings during the pandemic. One Texas court held the first virtual proceeding for a misdemeanor case. In the District of Massachusetts, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani said virtual court hearings were convenient since people do not need to travel to the court for the case. It is an effective way of providing justice.
For Judge Marsha J. Pechman, this convenience of not traveling far makes it easy to gather a diverse jury. It benefits jurors who have to travel hundreds of miles to reach the federal courthouse.
Even as civil jury trials held virtually can stand up to appeals, criminal trials might require in-person proceedings due to the constitutional right of defendants to confront their accusers. With this, many of the virtual hearings were civil cases rather them criminal cases.
Challenges in Virtual Proceedings
Despite the developments in technology, these electronic proceedings were vulnerable to several issues. These vulnerabilities include issues with outages that can affect some critical parts of the proceedings. For instance, one Pennsylvania high-profile case got interrupted due to a telephone outage that buffeted the audio transmission. The weather can also affect internet connection and cause some participants to lose their signal. But similar challenges also affect in-person proceedings. These challenges include jurors coming in late due to traffic.
Aside from the weather, other factors that can affect the legal proceedings might come into play. Some jurors might not be adept with technology. Virtual legal proceedings also require specific computer equipment. In these situations, many low-income and older jurors might be excluded from jury duties since they might not have the equipment to use in virtual legal proceedings.
Additionally, the security of complainants can also be at risk in virtual legal proceedings. In one virtual court hearing, the defendant was in the same room as the complaining witness. The prosecutor noticed that the witness was looking to her right while the defendant’s lawyer was objecting to her question.
She interrupted the defense lawyer and said that the defendant might be in the same apartment as the witness. While the police arrived in time to handcuff the defendant, it did show that the security of witnesses and complainants might not be assured in these situations.
The use of technology offered options to courts in the middle of the pandemic. Technology allowed the courts to innovate. Until the pandemic is over, courts should make adjustments to ensure everyone is safe from the virus.