With the use of Zoom technology, Minnesota Courts continue to operate with adjustments to court appearances and trials
The COVID pandemic continues to affect the operation of the Minnesota courts in many ways. The courts were initially shut down in March 2020. Many court appearances were cancelled for a time, and most others were delayed, which resulted in a substantial backlog of cases in the already overburdened court system.
Zoom Technology for Remote Appearances
The courts soon embraced the Zoom remote audio / video platform for most routine pretrial court appearances; where the judge, court staff, prosecutors, defense attorneys and parties to court proceedings all appeared remotely through the audio and video technology. Criminal cases, civil matters, juvenile court hearings, orders for protection, eviction matters, and many other court matters have been handled by having everyone involved appear with remote audio and video connections. As the pandemic continues, Minnesota district courts continue to use Zoom technology. There appears to be a recognition by the courts that remote audio and video court appearances are an efficient way to handle many routine court matters without requiring everyone involved to physically travel to a courthouse as it always was in the past. It appears that remote audio and video (Zoom) court appearances may be here to stay.
Minnesota Jails Adapt with Zoom
Minnesota jails and prisons have also adapted to use of Zoom technology. People who are in custody now routinely appear by Zoom for their court appearances, without having to be transported in custody by law enforcement officers from one jail to another and then physically brought into a courtroom. Instead, the jail where a person is being held in custody can just set up a laptop computer and have the person in custody attend their court appearance over Zoom, whenever possible. Avoiding the time and trouble of transporting people in custody seems to also have some significant cost and efficiency benefits. But not having the person present in the same location as their lawyer can make lawyer-client communication much more difficult.
Zoom and District Court Matters
There are also some differences between Minnesota counties regarding the extent of Zoom use for district court matters. Some counties have gradually returned to scheduling more of the routine pretrial court appearances in-person at the courthouse (like was always done before the pandemic), while other counties continue to rely more heavily on Zoom. County polices are also constantly evolving, depending on the continuing variability of the COVID pandemic. For example, Anoka County was gradually decreasing the use of Zoom court appearances and scheduling more matters for in person appearances, but in January 2020 the Anoka County court system went back to scheduling most court matters by Zoom again, due to the surge of the Omicron variant.
In-Person Trials and Courtroom Adaptations
But there are some court matters like criminal jury trials that still must be conducted in person. In a trial, it is critically important for the jury to be able to observe the witness testimony and evidence first-hand in the courtroom. COVID restrictions tend to make the trial process slow and cumbersome. For a while, courtrooms were physically rearranged to place all the jurors and everyone in the room 6 feet apart. That sometimes required jurors to sit in the spectator gallery behind the counsel tables where the lawyers and the parties were seated during trial. It has also been difficult to accommodate social distancing for large groups, like the pool of jurors who report for jury duty, and even the 12 jurors who need a place to deliberate and reach a verdict in secrecy at the end of a trial. Jury rooms were not designed to handle 12 people all remaining 6 feet apart. Jury selection questions often focus on how jurors would feel about being required to serve on a jury in the midst of the pandemic, where they may be out of their comfort zone or be required to do things they would not choose to do in their ordinary lives. And of course, most courtrooms now contain a great deal of plexiglass barriers and everyone must wear masks. By its very nature, a courtroom requires a person speaking to be heard by all the others in a large room, and wearing a mask can interfere with that whole process.
Remote Court Appearances: Here to Stay?
But the important business of the courts cannot be suspended or put on hold indefinitely, so the people who run the court system have embraced the many challenges of moving cases through the system as they balance the health risks of the pandemic with the fundamental right to fairness and justice in the courtroom. It seems that the need to find solutions like use of remote Zoom technology may have a long-term influence on how the courts operate in the future. Now that remote audio/video appearances for many things like medical appointments, job interviews, important meetings and even court appearances is becoming commonplace and readily accepted by the public, it seems like use of that technology in some form may be here to stay.