COVID-19 changed the court system forever.
Pandemic-triggered public health guidelines have forced all levels of US courts to go online, a historic development for a system dependent on paper files and in-person hearings.
The novel coronavirus begged the question: is there any truly essential group activity other than a jury trial?
Against this backdrop, courts wrestled with how to protect the rights of the accused while introducing changes to the traditionally outdated judiciary in response to government health regulations dealing with COVID-19.
Jury selections and processes flipped, giving jurors iPads and conducting the selection process, for example, in the Center for the Arts auditorium to allow for physical distancing.
The courthouse ventilation systems have been updated. A new flat-screen TV was installed in the courtroom while remote hearings were conducted online via Microsoft Teams. The accused were released before the court.
To find out where justice may have suffered and what progress has been made, the News&Guide interviewed key players in our local legal system. We also wanted to highlight people we may have forgotten to commend as key employees: Teton County Court Clerks.
For Teton County District Court Judge Melissa Owens, COVID-19 has allowed flexibility that can save time and money.
“When multiple parties and attorneys are involved and they may not be in the same jurisdiction, we can now conduct many hearings across teams to reduce costs and expenses for litigants,” Owens said.
Though Owens has switched the court back to in-person hearings “as much as possible,” particularly in the criminal context, she said there is now more plasticity for the parties.
“I’m always open and receptive to requests from parties if they need to appear remotely for any reason due to scheduling conflicts, expenses or anything like that,” Owens said. “For example for lawyers with offices in Wilson when they have a deadline to file and instead of driving over in summer traffic, what a great option [to appear remotely].”
Remote hearings have also benefited non-residents, Owens said.
“One interesting thing to note is that when I was a city judge, for someone who got a speeding ticket, it was helpful to be able to conduct a trial remotely,” she said. “Outsiders wanted to be able to file a lawsuit and fight it, so it helped them know they didn’t have to come back to Teton County to contest a speeding ticket.”
Teton County public defender Elisabeth Trefonas and former US President John Adams have one thing in common: they both believe that the right to a fair trial is “the heart and lungs of our democracy.”
Trefonas encountered some obstacles during the trial, such as trying to gauge a jury’s or judge’s response while watching a witness on Zoom.
“Facial expressions are key to determining behavior,” Trefonas said. “Am I pushing the witness too hard? Should I have pushed harder?”
She also said that it was more difficult to object to opposing attorney’s actions through Microsoft Teams.
“It’s a lot easier to object in person because you’re not trying to verbally cut someone off,” Trefonas said. “In court, you would stand up or raise your hand. Raising hands with teams doesn’t work for us.”
Although Trefonas received no complaints from her customers during the pandemic, she said it took a minute to update her customers so they understood the remote technology.
“There’s a misconception that people in need have a connection,” Trefonas said. “But I think our clients really preferred the remote option because it’s not easy for some people to go to court. Mobility is a matter of course for us.”
One thing that continues her office is the mailbox system outside the building where the attorneys can exchange documents with their clients outside of business hours.
By a sheriff’s sergeant
Delays in jurisdiction caused by COVID precautions impacted law enforcement, particularly for repeat offenders.
“The result, I think, was that we had a lot of cases that didn’t have a resolution pending some sort of verdict,” said Clayton Platt, investigative sergeant for the Teton County Sheriff’s Office. “Nevertheless, there were times when we re-engage with this individual for similar behavior.”
That was a difficult place, Platt said, when that defendant’s first crime was undecided, such as a DUI.
“There have been a couple of times that we’ve had people with multiple DUIs that didn’t get decided when they were arrested for their second,” Platt said. “In non-COVID times, similar cases would often have already been fully decided and this would allow for subsequent arrest for the same type of offense to bring about potential amelioration. But that can only happen when there are convictions.”
Platt said the pre-COVID norm was about six months between the first arrest and a judgment or trial. Depending on the offence, the new norm during the pandemic was “often well over a year”.
Basically all court clerks have carpal tunnel, but that’s a story for another day.
Lance Oviatt (and court clerks everywhere) was particularly affected by the move to remote hearings.
“Usually at in-person hearings, I certify the transcript verbatim,” Oviatt said. “But for hearings on video, I don’t certify the transcript as verbatim because I don’t know if I’m hearing the same things.”
We all know the challenges Oviatt spoke of: spotty internet connections, people not speaking into their mics, and talking at the same time. Attendees who leave a meeting and don’t let the other attendees know how long they’ve been gone, and when they come back they have to go back.
Oviatt and other court clerks were required to write “unintelligible” or “unintelligible” in their court filings. That could be grounds for future appeals, Oviatt said.
“It hasn’t been appealed yet, but let’s say it’s a criminal case…The Supreme Court might look at this transcript later and say, ‘We don’t know what he said.'”
Before the pandemic, Oviatt said he would “never” have the words inaudible or unintelligible in a transcript.
For those with accents or speech disabilities, Oviatt’s job was even more difficult.
“It helps if I can see her face,” Oviatt said, saying he reads lips sometimes. “But sometimes there were difficulties with the lighting or the cameras.”
On the plus side, Oviatt was responsible for a nationwide shift that improved access to technology.
“If someone didn’t have a device or internet access, we’d have them come into the courthouse and they’d sit downstairs in the lobby and court officials would give them an iPad to use our Wi-Fi,” Oviatt said. “We were the first court in Wyoming to do this; We bought our own tablet.”
Oviatt shared this approach with the Wyoming Supreme Court, which then sent two iPads to each Wyoming court.
“Now we have iPads available and we’ve used some COVID funding to buy more,” he said. “The pandemic forced us to update some of our old technologies.”
For example, the county courtroom now has a large touchscreen computer that looks like a television screen.
“Television benefits people who perform via video,” Oviatt said. “We use it to show evidence or when a distant witness needs to appear.”
Before COVID, the court was unable to show videos. A distant witness called so the jury could hear the audio but not physically see the person.
In essence, Oviatt said, “We are modernizing our court system.”
One of Anne Sutton’s primary responsibilities as Clerk of the Circuit Court is to coordinate the criminal jury selection process. That process required “two to three times” more work for the clerk’s office, “but it was important work,” Sutton said.
Throughout the pandemic, Sutton followed the Wyoming Supreme Court grand jury management plan.
“Generally, juries appeared on three separate panels to allow for distancing,” Sutton said. “There has been a lot of information sharing about COVID protocols, ways to communicate their medical needs and remote availability.”
Court documents are also moved through Sutton’s office where they are filed to keep the court records up to date and eventually archived. It’s a lot of paper, but it will soon be less.
Sutton and Owens agreed that COVID has significantly accelerated the process of courts transitioning from their paper-based system to paperless electronic filing.
“E-mail filing rules used to be more restrictive,” Sutton said. “You couldn’t send more than 10 pages and only in emergency situations, but now the rules for email filing have more consistent practices across the state, which has given attorneys and litigants better and more consistent access to work remotely.” “
Teton County District Court will transition to a new case management system in early June, which is a required first step before electronic filing can begin. The e-filing system is expected to be rolled out a year later in 2023.
“It has increased momentum and energy and willingness to move forward,” Sutton said.
A consequence of the pandemic that the district court will continue is the practice of putting the weekly calendar online to increase transparency for the public.
Sutton is also more confident systems are in place should other unfavorable circumstances arise in the future.
“Adjustments that we made would be effective under all circumstances,” Sutton said. “The pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to work out how we can continue the court’s work remotely if needed in any number of emergencies. We’ve also been forced to do cross-training much more quickly, which means we have broader opportunities to help with more complex topics, questions and problems.”
It has also reinvigorated the court clerks and strengthened their sense of purpose.
“This is a dedicated group of officials who understand how important a well-functioning court system is to our community and democracy,” Sutton said. “People have stood up on every occasion I can think of, and it’s been invigorating in terms of ‘This is important work.’ She emphasized the importance of this work. You end up becoming even more committed to your cause, and that cause is trust in your court system.”