COVID-19 crisis presents opportunities for our courts
The Columbus Dispatch | by Justice Pat DeWine
There is no sugarcoating it. This is a tough time for our court system.
Our work at the Ohio Supreme Court goes on — we have been able to hold oral arguments via video conferencing with attorneys and justices at remote locations. And because most of our other work involves reading briefs, researching legal issues and writing opinions, we have been able to function fairly efficiently with justices and staff working from home.
But at the trial court level, it is a different story. Jury trials have pretty much come to a halt. Many hearings have been delayed for months. Understandably, litigants are frustrated by their inability to get disputes resolved. Things will certainly get better as our society begins to reopen. But even when our courts are fully back to business, they will struggle to catch up with backlogs. And most likely, they will have to do so with fewer resources because of budget challenges at the state and local level.
It is not all bad news, though. During this strange time, many courts across the state have embraced technology and come up with innovative ways to continue to provide justice. Going forward, we need to look at what has worked and figure out how to incorporate what we have learned into our court system.
Start with remote technology. Across the state, judges are conducting hearings remotely. In Hamilton County, for example, Probate Judge Ted Winkler is finalizing adoptions and Domestic Relations Judge Amy Searcy is offering family mediation services through remote technology. Since the crisis started, the Ohio Supreme Court has awarded $6 million in remote technology grants to 277 courts in 87 counties.
This technology ought to be a permanent part of our judicial system. The average civil or criminal case includes numerous preliminary hearings and conferences before final disposition. As a practicing attorney, I often traveled to courthouses for status conferences that lasted only 5-10 minutes. Think of the savings in litigation costs that could be achieved by doing such conferences remotely.
And not only these kinds of routine matters could benefit from remote technology. Rather than fly in witnesses for hearings, why not consider whether remote testimony would be just as effective? Oftentimes, prisoners are transported across the state to attend hearings that last only a few minutes. How many of these could be conducted just as effectively via videoconference?
Certainly, in many cases there is great value to in-person testimony and interaction. But judges and lawyers need to think about when such in-person proceedings are worth the cost and efforts and whether remote technology might allow for a preferable substitute.
The possibilities for improvement go beyond remote conferencing. Although many Ohio courts already allowed for the e-filing of documents, the crisis has led to the expansion of e-filing. Every court should develop the capability to allow litigants to file pleadings without a trip to the courthouse.
The crisis has also led to increased use of other types of online services that help make our system more efficient. Last year the General Assembly passed legislation allowing for the electronic notarization of documents — a service that has proven to be of great benefit in recent weeks.
Finally, concerns about the virus have led judges in many counties to work with their local sheriffs to determine who really needs to be in jail and who could safely be confined in a different setting, for example via in-home monitoring with GPS technology. Jail beds are much more expensive than the alternatives, and it only makes sense for judges and sheriffs to continue to work together to make sure that jail spaces are assigned to those who truly need to be there.
Our legal system — indeed the entire idea of the rule of law — is built upon tradition and precedent. This is a strength of our system. But sometimes it can also be a weakness; as judges and lawyers we are not always the first to embrace innovation and technology.
We should look at this unprecedented time as an opportunity. When this all ends, we will have some tough times ahead in our court system. But we also have a chance to take some of what we have learned during this crisis and use it to improve our system in a way that benefits litigants and taxpayers.