Brent Murcia, MJLST Staffer
Wherever you look, it seems like COVID-19 is dominating all the headlines these days (even this blog!)—and with good reason. The pandemic is a public health crisis on a massive scale, forcing all of us to change our lives to “socially distance” and help “flatten the curve.”
As of April 7, 95% of Americans were under some sort of “stay at home” order. With life-as-usual on hold, many people are turning to technology to keep things running. For example, in Boston, some celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with virtual concerts. Some people celebrated Earth Day by tuning into National Park webcams. And of course, everyone from Minnesota Law students to the UK Cabinet is holding meetings (and happy hours!) on Zoom.
The legal system, of course, is not immune from the effects of this pandemic. Staff at government agencies, private law firms, and nonprofits are working from home. Some state legislatures are allowing remote voting for the first time. Many prisons have suspended in-person visits, including legal visits. Courts across the country are closed, delayed, or operating remotely. In section 150002 of the recent COVID-19 relief bill (the “CARES Act”), Congress authorized emergency video and telephone hearings for a variety of court proceedings, including detention hearings and felony pleas and sentencing. Even the United States Supreme Court will be moving to argument over the phone in May.
As with many things in society these days, a number of these changes would have been unthinkable two months ago. Who could have imagined that certain courts, many of which require paper filings and ban the use of electronic devices in courtrooms, would soon holdarguments via video conference? The Supreme Court itself has famously never allowed live broadcasts of arguments (a subject of considerable debate). But with arguments moving to the phone, the Court will now allow the public to listen in real time.
As one would expect, the rollout of these sudden changes has not been entirely smooth. In many courts, things have gone well, with only “momentary audio hiccups and minor glitches.” But in March, a D.C. Circuit judge was dropped from an argument and missed several minutes. Last week, a Florida judge complained of lawyers making court appearances shirtless or in pajamas. One Australian barrister described remote court hearings as follows: “The judge couldn’t see anyone; lines dropped out regularly; witnesses didn’t know where to go; … subpoenaed material could not be accessed by anyone; feedback made it impossible to proceed.”
Some of these problems are silly—in the grand scheme of things, we have bigger worries than appropriate Zoom dress codes. But others have the potential to fundamentally impact proceedings—possibly affecting parties’ due process rights. This blog post briefly explores some of the issues that COVID-19 has brought to the forefront, with a particular focus on administrative processes. (For a comprehensive listing of the ways in which different federal administrative agencies are holding their hearings, see this great blog post from the Yale Journal on Regulation).
Remote Hearings—An Overview
Remote proceedings are not exactly new. Even before the pandemic took hold, CourtCall—a company that facilitates remote appearances—had hosted six million such appearances since 1996. Many courts have long allowed certain remote appearances (sometimes requiring the consent of the parties, sometimes not). According to the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), some agencies already conducted thousands of video hearings a year even before the pandemic. Still, until recently, such appearances were the exception, not the norm. And the use of remote technologies has generated controversy, even before its sudden widespread adoption.
Problems with Remote Hearings
Some people have expressed skepticism about the use of remote hearings, emerging in part from evidentiary concerns. As the BBC recently reported, video calls can make it “harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language.” That BBC story also referred to a 2014 study which found that even a 1.2 second transmission delay on a videoconferencing system “made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused.” These effects can matter, considering the importance of perception and non-verbal cues in courtrooms. Additionally, one 1996 study in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform (before the advent of video technology) found that “parties to telephone hearings are less likely to exercise their rights to submit evidence through witnesses and documents than are parties to in-person hearings.”
Remote hearings can be particularly problematic in immigration hearings, which often involve language interpretation and the recounting of traumatic events. In early March—even before COVID-19 closures began—immigration courts in Texas began a pilot program to hold more hearings for unaccompanied children over videoconference, attempting to reduce a backlog of cases. One immigration attorney, forced by the virus to work with clients remotely, described the difficulty of doing so: “[w]e’re asking kids to open up and talk about the most personal and traumatic experiences of their lives and not even be making direct eye contact with them.” Remote hearings can affect the outcome of cases; a 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that video hearings caused difficulties with language interpretation and affected immigration judges’ assessments of respondents’ credibility. A study in the Northwestern University Law Review found that respondents in video hearings were more likely to be deported. The American Immigration Lawyers Association opposes the use of video hearings for immigration for these reasons.
Problems with remote hearings also arise in settings that require public participation—like rulemakings and permit applications. In Minnesota, for instance, the state Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) recently delayed publication of a proposed Clean Cars rule, recognizing the importance of in-person comment and“ensuring that the public has opportunity to participate in the rule-making process.” At the same time, the MPCA moved forward with public meetings about Clean Water Act permits for the controversial Line 3 pipeline project, holding the meetings over the phone. More than 1,600 people called into the meetings, but only 400 were able to speak due to high volume. Some local organizers collected video comments, attempting to put a face to the public input, and called for the agency to hold in-person meetings once the pandemic has passed.
Finally, depending on the circumstances, remote hearings can also run afoul of specific public process requirements and open meeting laws. Lawyers in New Jersey, for instance, have highlighted a number of legal concerns arising from virtual land use board hearings. Laws about when and how meetings may be held electronically vary state to state; and amidst the pandemic, governors and legislatures have taken varying steps to clarify that authority. In Minnesota, the state legislature amended the open meeting law to account for the pandemic, expanding the circumstances under which meetings may be held remotely.
Benefits of Remote Hearings
Despite all of these problems, some lawyers have actually long advocated for an increase in virtual hearings. One common argument is that online hearings can help improve access to justice, addressing backlogs of millions of cases in some courts and agencies. Some argue that our current legal process is built more around “serving a place than serving justice.” One paper surveyed a number of other reasons why remote hearings may help in some contexts. Remote hearings can help in international cases or cases where the parties and witnesses live far apart; they can help with safety and security for parties, witnesses, and judges; they can help alleviate scheduling issues; and they can help in cases where traveling to court presents a significant burden for an individual, perhaps for economic reasons or due to a disability. (For a thorough summary of some of the ways in which technology—not just remote hearings—can help improve access to justice, see this 2012 article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology).
Further, while some arguments against remote hearings focus on the importance of non-verbal cues in proceedings, others have disputed that importance. Some research has pointed out that there can be as much pseudoscience as science in attempts to interpret witness behavior. Some have questioned whether witness demeanor is even useful at all for assessing credibility. And while non-verbal cues can and do shape judge and jury reactions, this may not always be a good thing—reactions to certain behaviors can be shaped by implicit bias, furthering racial and other disparities. More research is likely needed on whether these disparities are exacerbated or lessened by different types of virtual hearings.
Finally, remote court hearings can create significant cost savings. For example, according to ACUS, the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review saved $59 million in 2010 from using video hearings. These savings matter to people who have to navigate the legal system. A 2014 NPR investigation found, for example, that “the costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders.” Many defendants are required to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in court costs, even for constitutionally required services. Reducing court costs could help lower fees, reducing the burden on low-income parties. Additionally, law firms are saving money from virtual hearings too, potentially reducing the cost of legal services and improving access to representation down the road.
The potential for improved access and reduced costs from virtual hearings is promising, but comes with an important caution. As British lawyer Richard Atkinson wrote for The Guardian in 2012: “A more efficient justice system is possible, but the government needs to recognise that speed does not always equate to efficiency and efficiency should never be promoted over justice.”
As the effects of social distancing wear on, many of us look forward to the day when we can finally go “back to normal.” Without question, it will be a happy day when we can be with our loved ones, our friends, and our coworkers again. Lawyers will also be happy to return to the office, meet with clients in person, and advocate in real courtrooms.
At the same time, questions about remote hearings will not go away. Looking backward, some litigators will likely contest whether certain remote hearings conducted during COVID-19 were permissible. Looking forward, others will use our social distancing experience to argue that we should expand or reduce the use of remote hearings in the future.
There are no universal answers to these questions—the appropriateness of remote hearings depends on the applicable laws and the context of the case. In some cases, remote hearings can adversely affect parties’ rights; in others, they can actually improve access to justice. As one English judge wrote recently, “[i]t remains the obligation of all involved and at all stages of the hearing, to continue to evaluate whether fairness to all the parties is being achieved. Fairness cannot be sacrificed to convenience.” Our task, in these unprecedented times, is to move forward as best and as fairly we can—and to learn from these new experiences to better inform our approach to technology in the courtroom in the future.