Review takes stock of the effectiveness of Virtual Court hearings

(TNS) – The use of video technology to hold hearings has its drawbacks. Participants can sometimes show up topless, smoke, drive and with children screaming in the background.

Some respond to the judge or swear, beyond the scope of the reprimand of a bailiff. Judges waste time waiting for technical issues to be resolved, and victims sometimes feel cheated to confront an offender in person.

“I think we have to be careful what happens to the rules of decorum,” Judge Stoney Hiljus, of Minnesota’s 10th Judicial District, said at a recent Judicial Council meeting. “Because, quite frankly, I deal more with matters of decorum on Zoom. At what point, particularly in a criminal context, if I decide that an accused is so unruly that I will withdraw or deactivate him on a Zoom hearing – when does this have constitutional ramifications? ”


Since the pandemic prompted courts in Minnesota to find ways to conduct proceedings without meeting in person, court officials have gained experience using video conferencing. Now, the state is starting to develop a framework for what court hearings might look like when all pandemic restrictions are gone.

ZOOM IS HERE TO STAY

The results show that virtual audiences – typically conducted using the Zoom app – have their place and won’t disappear completely.

In September, the 25-member Minnesota Judicial Council Committee, many of whom are judges, voted to gradually put in place a structure that would decide when a court could meet in person and when it could meet remotely.

The vote was based on the findings of a task force dubbed “The Other Side” which compiled comments from all areas of the court over a six-month period.

For non-criminal matters, the council has voted that hearings in which evidence is presented or testimony is taken must be held in person.

For non-criminal cases that do not involve evidence hearings, these can be held at bay.

WHAT ABOUT THE JUDGES ‘DISCRETION?

The ruling allows for exceptions on a case-by-case basis in extenuating circumstances – and that has been the sticking point. What exactly constitutes a mitigating circumstance?

Some judges want the choice to be theirs.

“This has been raised by several justices in our district,” said Associate State Supreme Court Judge G. Barry Anderson. “We want to keep this discretion with the judge.”

This motion was defeated because the council felt that there would be no reason to provide advice if the judges were left to their own discretion, and that this freedom could create a “nightmare” in terms of implementation. .

WHEN IT WORKS AND WHEN IT DOESN’T WORK

The task force found that holding hearings remotely worked well in family court because attendance was more reliable. Parents didn’t need to have babysitters or rearrange their lives to be in the courthouse. They just had to pick up their phone.

Sometimes Zoom worked best for protection order hearings because the victim felt more secure, not having to worry about seeing their abuser in court.

Other times, however, in person has worked better due to the contentious nature of the hearings. Everyone could be in the same room and voice their differences in the presence of a judge and a bailiff instead of talking to each other online or bogging down the process with multiple text messages to representatives.

Any type of trial requiring the presentation of evidence or hearing testimony did not work well from a distance, the group found.

CRIMINAL HEARINGS ARE A DIFFERENT RACE

Jeanette Boelter, mother of Anthony Boelter, 21, this month witnessed two convictions for the men who shot her son. The first was in person and the second was at a distance.

For her, facing her son’s murderer was emotionally overwhelming. She sobbed in her victim impact statement and tried not to look at the accused. Sentencing the second man was a little easier for her.

“I felt more secure,” she said. “I must have my dog ​​on my lap. Plus, I liked being able to turn the camera on and off.”

Family members who lost a pregnant relative were angry rather than sad at the murder conviction of Clinton Roosevelt Delaney in September. They objected to Delaney appearing from a distance on a screen in the courtroom and said they felt cheated to be able to face him in person.

Although most hearings are public, when testimony is shared, unless it is a high-profile case, most of the people in the courtroom are known to the parties. On Zoom, some have expressed embarrassment about talking about private angst knowing that several other people unrelated to the case are listening while waiting for their time with the judge.

A recent rape victim in Ramsey County District Court stared at the camera, wondering who all these other people were as she stammered out an extremely difficult victim impact statement.

THE REVERSE, WITH A CAUTION

For judges spanning multiple counties, the Zoom hearings have been a blessing. Stop wasting a whole day driving from courthouse to courthouse. Multiple cases can be seen in a day, a benefit now with the courts widening the backlog from the pandemic.

Last week, the council met again, but made no further decisions on how hearings will be held after the pandemic, instead planning to adjust its framework month by month based on the level of cases of virus in the state.

This hesitation worries some who think the board is rushing to make future decisions in an uncertain present.

“It is very important that this is not a permanent change in the functioning of the trial courts,” said 10th District Chief Justice John Hoffman. “All of this exists because of COVID. I think we are doing it as part of a public health emergency and until this public health emergency has resolved, then I think we should make some decisions. standing on the functioning of the courts of first instance. “

Vice-president of the council 7th District Judge Michelle Lawson disagreed, saying now is the time to prepare for post-pandemic procedures.

“What is recommended is the framework to make it happen… with the aim of not doing it due to a public emergency,” Lawson said. “We do this because it serves our public, it works well with our forensic operations and these are really valuable lessons we learned during the pandemic. “

© 2021 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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Sara H. Byrd

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