The doors may be shut, but Texas courts are still open for business. Courts continue to hum amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Increasingly courts are embracing technology to continue to push cases and provide resolution to parties.
Paving the way for this tech-transformation was the Supreme Court of Texas’ emergency order of March 13. The Court authorized judges to require attorneys and parties to appear by video. Although many judges ask for the parties’ consent, courts need not do so.
While hearings by phone were not unheard of, they were far from the norm before the pandemic. But over the past two months, remote access to courts has flourished. Chief among this tech revolution is reliance on Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms to keep dockets moving.
Trial by Zoom
Several Texas courts have held entire trials by Zoom. One attention-grabbing case was a bench-trial in the 190th District Court (Harris County) last week. The case involved an insurance dispute over the recovery of attorneys’ fees.
The attorneys and witnesses appeared by video-conferencing from the comfort of their offices and homes. The parties were prepped and dressed for trial. On the other hand, one Florida court had to admonish lawyers not to appear in bathing suits or while still in bed.
What’s more impressive, the court live-streamed the trial in real time. Onlookers could watch on as the attorneys sparred, lodged objections, and argued their cases. It’s not sports, but it was close enough!
While it was initially touted as the first trial entirely by Zoom, eagle-eyed observers were quick to note that other trials had already occurred across Texas, including one as early as March 25. Though, this was the first in Harris County.
One of the questions curious observers had was about the court’s bold warning that recording the court proceeding could result in contempt of court. One observer noted that attorneys generally cannot make their own recording of court proceedings.
Remote trials raise other novel issues. Unlike a party sitting on the stand, witnesses have full access to their computers. Witnesses could pull up documents to answer thorny questions–a luxury not otherwise available. Additionally, the witnesses, in theory, could “chat” while on the “stand,” raising questions about coaching. Courts will continue to grapple with these and other issues, and innovate in the process. One creative idea to prevent attorneys from talking over each other: “Objection Paddles” to lodge objections on video.
Oral Argument by Zoom
Trial courts are not the only ones soldiering on with the help of technology. The Supreme Court of Texas held its first ever oral argument by Zoom on April 8. Tom Wright and Kevin Dubose were the inaugural attorneys arguing a case involving the “borrowed servant” doctrine.
Justices appeared remotely, clad in judicial robes and with the Supreme Court of Texas background behind them. The Court Clerk circulated some sharp images of the Court for advocates to use as backgrounds. Remote arguments weren’t exactly the same, but the process was altogether seamless. The Justices took efforts to reduce the potentially awkward interruption of questions by often beginning “Mr. _____, I have a question.” Additionally, one of the Zoom “participants” was the clock keeping time. Another great innovation.
The Supreme Court of Texas has now heard four cases remotely. Afterwards, Justice Guzman offered some thoughts on the process. Some of the tips include simple, but often overlooked, basics of “remoting in” including:
- Choose an appropriate background or location. Our judges used a uniform background to help set the tone.
- Fully charge your battery and use a power cord. Batteries discharge quickly while using video applications.
- Maximize internet connectivity to avoid dropping off mid‑argument. Disengaging other household devices from wifi is helpful but may prove difficult with so many children distance learning these days.
I cannot imagine the terror of having your laptop die or wi-fi disconnect mid argument! Having a judge insist that he could not hear me by phone for an MSJ hearing was bad enough!
The global health crisis has spurred a tech-revolution for courts. Judges, advocates, and parties continue to adapt and innovate–and endure some of the awkwardness as we iron out the kinks in the process.