When I was sworn in as a circuit court judge in Chicago in July 2011, the images of the day included my chambers, “all rise,” a courtroom, and that courtroom full of attorneys and litigants. The courtroom was buzzing with low-toned conversations and the anticipation of witnesses and arguments being presented to the court. Back then, I could never have imagined “Zoom” remote proceedings. Until March 2020, I had no idea what Zoom even was. Today, Zoom is my courtroom and the only means by which I am able to conduct all of my court proceedings and get through my daily docket.
I am not technologically inclined; however, once I learned Zoom was the only way I was able to get my work done each day and move my case load along, I embraced it fully. I began to think of this remote platform as my courtroom. How could I implement many of my traditional protocols for my cases into this Zoom technology? This is what I have learned and how I’ve been able to manage my individual calendar of family law cases in these unprecedented times.
Be Open to Technology
Even if you are hesitant, you will find the use of Zoom or other remote platforms is not that difficult. Be willing to practice and discuss what you don’t know. I found discussing what I wanted to do and how I wanted the proceedings to look with our law clerks (all technologically savvy) gave me the skills that I needed to set up my courtroom and navigate the program efficiently.
Set Up Guidelines for Your Courtroom Procedures and Give Attorneys Clear Expectations
- Set up your own Zoom account or use what is provided by your circuit or county. Be in control of the remote proceeding. The judge should be the host of the meeting. Require documents to be submitted to you prior to proceedings via email, Dropbox, or other electronic means. This will allow you to review your cases just as if paper courtesy copies were dropped off to your chambers.
- Use the waiting room to control access into your proceedings and admit the parties and counsel for cases at the same time.
- Use the privacy or security feature to lock the meeting, so as to avoid possible Zoom bombing.
- Set up and use the breakout rooms to allow counsel and clients to conference during breaks or to discuss the court recommendations.
Set Out Admonishments for Attorneys and Litigants Prior to Proceeding with a Case
- No video or audio recording of any kind is permitted.
- No photos or screenshots of the proceedings are permitted.
- No children may be present during proceedings (in the room or in an area where the children may hear the proceedings).
- Each person must identify themselves, identify if there is any other person in the room with them, and aknowledge if they or any other person leaves or enters the room.
- Be courteous; do not speak over each other. The technology may cause delays; be patient and calm.
- Appear in camera range at all times.
- Minimize background noise/mute your computer
- Silence phones.
- No communication between witnesses and counsel or between the parties during testimony by any means.
Proceedings Will Go Awry
Not all proceedings will go smoothly. It is much more difficult to keep decorum in your Zoom courtroom than the traditional courtroom where a deputy is present. It is important to attempt to resolve the issues. As the host of the meeting, you have the power to mute any participant. You may also remove the participant from the proceeding; however, once removed, the participant is barred from entering the meeting on that particular electronic device. As a final option, you may stop the proceedings, reschedule, and end the Zoom meeting.
Judging cases in a remote platform not only poses challenges with the process but also with the manner in which the court observes a witness, hears testimony, admits evidence, and conducts the trial or proceeding overall. As a judge, I developed a manner in which I preferred to hear trials and have testimony presented to the court. I set up my bench in a manner that allowed me to work with multiple resources in front of me as well as look out into the well and see the parties and counsel at counsel table and the witness in the witness box. While not always an ideal optical range, it is what I became accustomed to over many years. My initial fear on conducting a trial by Zoom was the unknown and my ability to assess the credibility of a witness and control the communication between a witness, counsel, or third party on some other electronic device. Additionally, I was concerned about document- and evidence-heavy cases and the exchange and presentation of exhibits. I soon learned that the use of Zoom actually allowed me to see witnesses and counsel very clearly and up close. I have learned to observe if witnesses’ eyes trail down as if looking at notes or a phone. I will often ask witnesses to tilt their cameras toward the area in front of them to confirm there is no device or notes. I may also ask a witness to pan the room they are in with the camera to confirm there is no one else in the room with them while testifying.
The use of shared screens allows for easy and quick access to documents. As the meeting host, the judge may allow other participants to share the screen, which lets everyone see the documents simultaneously. The shared screen has cut down substantially on the need for multiple binders of exhibits and the difficulty in calling out exhibits and time taken to have everyone literally on the same page.
Our courthouse remains closed to in-person proceedings; however, if we did resume proceedings, the number of participants in the courtroom would be limited. The judge’s bench is encased in a sneeze guard, including the witness box. All participants must be masked. The process of a trial with these types of safety measures, while necessary in today’s world, seems far more restrictive than a Zoom proceeding. The muted sound of voices under a mask and through plexiglass and the only visible facial features of witnesses being their eyes, in my opinion, hinder the process and do not allow me to fully access the credibility of a witness. Additionally, having documents on a shared screen and my use of a second computer is far easier than sorting through the trial exhibit binders. I have begun to use one computer for the Zoom proceeding and one computer for all documents.
As we head toward a less-restrictive internal courtroom environment, I believe we are still a far way off from the traditional courtrooms of the past. I support and encourage remote proceedings to remain as a continual part of our judicial process. The use of both the remote and in-person proceedings allows for greater access and expediency in proceedings as well as keeping the judicial process in step with our legal community and societal changes and challenges.