Gayle Davis, Dallas County Communications Manager for IT Network Operations, says she has seen a big increase in productivity thanks to the use of video communications.

Jan 12 2021

State and Local Courts Embrace Video Magistration Amid the Pandemic

The coronavirus crisis forced judicial systems across the country to fast-track video solutions to enable remote proceedings.

In 2019, Dallas County, Texas, started the process of replacing its legacy judicial video system, which was used extensively by the county’s magistrate judges. The rollout wasn’t an urgent priority. The system was a bit outdated, and IT professionals sometimes had trouble locating parts when an endpoint failed, but the solution was mostly working fine.

Then COVID-19 hit, and use of the video system tripled overnight. Gayle Davis, communications manager for IT network operations, says she was ­“holding her breath” and looking for backup spare parts for the old system as her team raced to deploy a Cisco video ­magistration solution, installing 117 new video endpoints around the county.

“It was very challenging to get ­anyone to do onsite work,” Davis says. “Some of our cabling vendors got COVID after they went to work in the jails, and it shut their business down for a while. It took longer to get ­projects completed because of ­people’s inability to simply enter buildings safely. Our department was in a frenzy just trying to get ­employees ready for telework, and that all ­happened in a two- to ­three-week time frame.”

While Dallas County had been using video technology in its courts for years, many judicial systems around the ­country scrambled in the spring to either deploy solutions for the first time or rapidly expand their offerings due to social distancing requirements designed to stop the spread of the contagious ­disease. That rush to equip courts with video brought both technical and ­cultural challenges, with judges and ­attorneys learning how to use new systems in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis that forced most of them to work from home.

Recalibrating Court Proceedings for a Remote World 

“Scaling the technology is difficult,” says Scott U. Schlegel, a Louisiana judge who chairs the state’s Supreme Court Technology Commission, as well as the Louisiana District Judges Association Technology Committee.

“You have to ensure that folks have the right bandwidth at home. Presenting to the court virtually can sometimes be awkward for attorneys,” he says. 

“There’s a lot to be said for walking a physical document up to the witness and being able to make eye contact with everyone in the courtroom. If you do not practice virtual advocacy and learn how to re-create the courtroom experience to the best of your ability, a number of these important nuances can be lost.”

Dallas County rolled out a mix of video endpoints, with different units going to different settings. For remote areas, the county installed the Cisco IP Phone 8865, which is used by workers in juvenile justice and adult probation settings. In jails, Cisco Webex DX80 units were installed, and about 12 Cisco Webex Room 55 units were placed in larger areas.

In her own role, Davis has seen ­considerable productivity improvements due to remote work. Those benefits will be too great for judicial systems to ignore, even after the end of the current crisis, she predicts.

“I think this is the new normal,” she adds.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how videoconferencing tools enhance safety for local courts. 

‘A Mad Dash’ to Get Technology for Courts 

While rapid deployment of the new ­system was a challenge for Dallas County, the coronavirus crisis forced many jurisdictions to build and launch judicial video environments simultaneously. The Connecticut Judicial Branch dramatically expanded remote access to courts in May, commencing with case status and pretrial conferences being conducted via Microsoft Teams.

Gayle Davis, Dallas County Communications Manager for IT Network Operations
I think this is the new normal.”

Gayle Davis Dallas County Communications Manager for IT Network Operations

“It was a mad dash to determine which technology would best suit the judicial branch’s needs,” says Thomas J. MacLean, program manager of ­courtroom technology for the state’s Judicial Information Systems division. “Despite the challenges of the ­pandemic, the court system had to move forward, and meaningful access to ­justice had to be provided. We could not just suspend all of our operations.”

The division had long been a Microsoft shop, but hadn’t yet made the move to Microsoft 365. “After COVID hit, we tried it out, and it was exactly what we needed,” MacLean says. “We obtained Teams licenses for all of our staff — a little more than 4,000 ­­users — and started our development, ­deployment and training activities.”

Judges and other hearing participants are currently using a mix of state-owned and privately owned devices to connect. Some judges are conducting hearings, trials and other proceedings on their laptops from remote locations, but judges’ benches in courtrooms have been outfitted with HP E231 23-inch monitors and VDO360 web cameras to allow such proceedings to be conducted fully within courthouse ­locations as well. While jury trials are currently suspended, all other court proceedings are being conducted via Teams. “Pretty much everything that can be done remotely is being done remotely,” MacLean says.

LEARN MORE: Find out how videoconferencing helps judges hear cases faster and defendants see less jail time.

Maryland Embraces Tools to Conduct Hearings Remotely

In June, the trial courts of Maryland began using Zoom for Government to support remote hearings. Fred S. Hecker, administrative judge of the Circuit Court for Carroll County and chair of the Maryland Judicial Council’s court technology committee, says that he’s been conducting around half of his own hearings via Zoom. Since the adoption of Zoom for Government by the Maryland Judiciary, Maryland trial courts have hosted 20,540 remote hearings with 104,567 remote ­participants as of press time.

“The speed with which both the courts and attorneys have accepted the use of remote hearings and video technology is really surprising,” Hecker says. “We went from doing practically no video meetings to doing 10,000 quickly. When I look back at how much progress we’ve made in six months, it’s really remarkable.”

71%

The percentage of surveyed law firms using Zoom in 2020, up from just 5% in 2017

Source: joetechnologist.com, “ILTA’s 2020 Annual Legal Technology Survey,” Nov. 18, 2020

Hecker says that tech issues have largely been limited to minor glitches that were solved by asking users to sign out of the system and sign back in.

“We have found that there are ­proceedings we previously conducted in person that we can conduct just as effectively using Zoom for Government,” he says. “I foresee the continued use of virtual courtroom technology, even after we’re at a much lower risk from a public health ­standpoint. Some of these hearings — where, for example, an attorney might have to drive a considerable distance to get to court for a brief hearing — I personally don’t see any reason we shouldn’t continue to ­conduct those remotely.”

MacLean says he hopes that remote proceedings will constitute the bulk of court business going ­forward. “The extent to which the court system is able to do more and more of its work remotely may have an impact on the type and nature of the workspace we will need to ­conduct our business in the years to come,” he says. “This shift to remote technology is probably going to change the judicial landscape for the foreseeable future.”

Photography By Trevor Paulhus