After more than a year of severe pandemic restrictions on court operations, we are slowly but surely seeing things getting closer to normal. However, the “new normal” will not look exactly like the days before March 2020. As with so many other parts of life, the pandemic created some opportunities to rethink how we do business in the courts, and some of the changes motivated by crisis might lead to longer-term modifications to our process.
Some things cannot be done — or at least not done well — via Zoom, and those matters are going back to in-person hearings. Criminal jury trials have been back up and running in the courthouse for several weeks. With the more recent end of masking and social distancing requirements, we are able to run multiple jury courtrooms at the same time now, which will greatly help our efforts to reduce the significant backlog of trials. Civil trials are also getting ready to start up again. Those cases, unfortunately, have had to take a back seat to criminal trials: cases about money had to be a lower priority than those where a person’s liberty is at stake. Other contested hearings with testimony are moving back into the courthouse. Those include contested child protection trials, pretrial evidentiary hearings in criminal cases, and custody or divorce trials. These hearings, where witness credibility is often crucial, lost something over Zoom, and it will be good to go back to the old way of doing things. Finally, sentencing hearings where the presumptive sentence is an executed prison term will again be in the courthouse, which will be far easier for law enforcement and court security.
At least for now, however, many other routine hearings are going to remain in the virtual world. Feedback from litigants and attorneys showed a silver lining from the pandemic restrictions. Using Zoom, attorneys are able to cover hearings in multiple courthouses during the same half-day sessions. For example, prior to the pandemic, a public defender who had cases in both Duluth and Hibbing would have to appear in person for everything. Typically, that meant he or she could only cover one location for a session and attempt to drive between locations over the noon hour (scrupulously obeying the speed limit, of course). With Zoom and the calendar flexibility it provides, that same attorney could have cases at any time in either place.
Similarly, in Duluth we found that Zoom did not work well for our larger mass calendars, so that forced us to set more specific court times for the call. Prior to the pandemic, litigants would need to take at least a half-day off from work for court and often sit for an extended period of time waiting for their case to be called, even if it was just for a brief hearing. With Zoom, many of those people are now able to take just a short break from their jobs and attend the hearing from their workplace or the parking lot. That is a convenience that many people liked.
A statewide work group is exploring how court operations should look in the future, even after the last COVID variant is (hopefully) eradicated. The courthouses will likely never go completely virtual, but our increased technology infrastructure and lessons learned during the pandemic might give the courts more options to deliver our services as efficiently and conveniently as possible.