Courts Turn to Technology During Coronavirus Crisis

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The coronavirus pandemic has forced courts to abandon traditions and embrace long-resisted technology allowing legal work even if courtrooms are empty. The effort has frayed personal connections that build trust among lawyers and judges and challenged the idea that defendants have a right to confront accusers, the Wall Street Journal reports. A Florida attorney learned her trial in three days would be held via a video-conferencing technology she had never used. A Texas judge emptied a courtroom to allow a defendant to talk privately with his attorney by phone. A New York City judge declared a mistrial over an attorney’s coughing while questioning a witness by speakerphone.

Judges are holding trials over Zoom, the online video-conference service, and attorneys are questioning witnesses or making oral arguments by phone. Defendants are pleading guilty without entering court. The measures are necessary to provide a resolution for defendants stuck in jail, protect domestic-violence victims in immediate danger and avoid a crippling backlog when courts reopen. The move to technology could cut costs, speed trial timelines and provide more access to rural areas when things return to normal. “It is forcing some of this technology in areas we should already have it,” said Duffie Stone of the National District Attorneys Association. Nina Ginsberg of the National Association of Defense Lawyers said video-conferencing “should be very temporary, and only with the defendant’s consent. People have the right to a public trial.” Defendants can be formally charged, have bail hearings and enter guilty pleas by video conference from jail. At San Antonio’s Bexar County courthouse, people mill about in 25 courtrooms daily, said District Attorney Joe Gonzales. To reduce crowds, some judges use video-conferencing. “Even some of our judges that may be old school are willing to learn,” he said.

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