Apr 07 2021

How a Pennsylvania Court System Resumed Operations Thanks to Telework Tech

Montgomery County’s CIO supported the 38th Judicial District during the COVID-19 pandemic, ushering in new ways of conducting business.

Courts historically are very resistant to change, says Michael Case, district court administrator for the 38th Judicial District, based in Norristown, Pa. He would know: As the official who acts as COO for the district, Case has served the system for more than 30 years, currently tending to the requirements of 24 common pleas judges and 30 magisterial district judges.

Until March 2020, Case conducted the business of the court through in-person hearings or conferences roughly 99 percent of the time. “We also would have something like 150 jurors coming into the courthouse every day. It was a very busy building with court operations in all 24 courtrooms and lawyers, litigants, judges, staff and the general public. We would have list days in some courtrooms where there would be close to 100 cases listed in one day in one courtroom,” Case says. “It was a very busy place.”

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, however, even the courts had to switch to remote operations. Employees and the public could no longer crowd into the courthouse for fear of spreading COVID-19. Only two judges reported to the courthouse initially, and the court system slowly restarted operations using remote technology. Thanks to the support of Montgomery County CIO Anthony Olivieri and his staff, the 38th Judicial District resumed nearly full operation with the assistance of virtual desktop infrastructure and laptops, many acquired from CDW•G.

“We adopted a phased-in approach to utilizing technology to be able to do 75 to 80 percent of what we previously had done across the board in all divisions using technology remotely,” Case says.

Working from Home Proved Successful for Court Employees

Although the 38th Judicial District is a Pennsylvania state trial court, it is funded entirely by counties. The district looks to Montgomery County for tech support. Case meets with Olivieri every week to review court IT projects, and they had established a long-term working relationship well before the pandemic struck. Together, they were able to address the technology needs of the court very quickly. 

“Most of our employees had PCs prior to the pandemic,” Case says. “So, a good number of laptops needed to be purchased in order for the staff to be able to work remotely. In addition to the hardware, whether it was a laptop, a monitor or a scanner, we also had a good deal of software needs to address, particularly when it came to videoconferencing and actually being able to conduct a hearing remotely using that technology.”

Working with Montgomery County Information and Technology Solutions, Case opened access to VMware VDI for each judicial employee. The VDI provided a common office environment for roughly 350 employees working remotely, enabling access to videoconferencing, soft phone systems and other critical applications. Judicial law clerks, for example, “can do everything they would normally do for the judge in the courthouse, through their desktops, their VDI,” Case says.

“Pre-pandemic, if you had asked me if it would be possible or likely that the court would be willing to dispose of matters remotely, I would’ve said that was highly unlikely. But frankly, the pandemic has taught us that we can in fact dispose of a good number of cases not only remotely but even oftentimes on paper, as opposed to actually even having a remote hearing or conference. So, I do think that there are going to be some long-term implications of this experiment,” Case says.

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Remote Operations May Have an Impact on the Future of Government

For Case, the 38th Judicial District is successful when cases move to disposition. In 2020, the district disposed of 60 percent of listed cases without trial during remote operations, which constituted a stunning success. In a normal year, the courts would dispose of 98 percent of cases without a jury trial, but reaching the 60 percent measure during the pandemic was remarkable.

“Remote meetings can be as productive as in-person meetings. More people can be involved, because some might not have been able to travel to the meetings or get to the meetings on time. The fact that we’re using technology for meetings generally expands the world of people who are able to participate in those meetings and allows them to be extremely effective,” Case says.

The success has provided fuel for reimagining future court operations. Perhaps staff can have more flexible hours, and perhaps the court will not require alternative facilities for continuity of operations planning.

“I can say that in the 30 years I’ve worked for the courts, we’ve never experienced anything like this. We can grow on and build on the change that has taken place,” Case says.

Getty Images/ PierreDesrosiers