October 09, 2020 National Conference of Federal Trial Judges

NCFTJ Chair's Column

Hon. Miguel Torres, El Paso, TX

You pour yourself a cup of coffee, and head down the hall from your kitchen to your office, to begin your workday.  Your morning commute to the courthouse has perhaps been replaced on many days by a routine telephone conference with your staff in preparation for the day’s hearings. Maybe you secure the door of your office to make sure that your Zoom meetings and hearings are uninterrupted by an enthusiastic and vocal pet or, as in my case, by even more enthusiastic and vocal small children determined to make an unannounced cameo as the world’s tiniest, cheeriest bailiffs. Your improvised virtual courtroom thus secured and sealed off, you put on your judges’ robe, dial into your call, and focus on the odd Hollywood Squares-style video layout that has become a symbol of our daily work life as you greet the litigants and attorneys. This is not an uncommon workplace scenario for many right now. And so it goes as we do what we can to make things work while under the heel of this pandemic which has so surreally and significantly impacted our work life.

While the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis impacts every facet of life in our country and the world, the mission of the courts to continue court operations and deliver justice has not abated.  Nor has the commitment of judges and court staff in coming up with seemingly infinite ways of adapting to our new realities.  What only recently constituted a normal workday has been re-engineered in ways unthinkable only months ago.  Conscientious judges across the country are making the difficult choices in continuing the critical mission of the courts while balancing the well-being, safety, and rights of litigants, lawyers, staff, juries, and the public.  There is not a judge in America who has not wrestled with these hard questions, a constant process of analysis, consultation, and re-evaluation in the face of changing data and official guidance.  We are making these decisions, as we often do in our jobs, with the best information we have at the time, knowing it may not be perfect or complete information.  But decisions must be made.  That’s the job.

For the many dedicated members of the legal profession who devote their time and energy to professional service organizations like the ABA, the very challenges we each face present a heightened opportunity for service.  It is precisely in these times, where the circumstances have forced us to make so many difficult and unprecedented decisions, that the work of the ABA can meet the moment and provide an excellent platform for addressing the challenges posed by this crisis.  With members from every state and territory, the ABA is singularly well-suited for sharing information and experiences.  In my own experience, it has been invaluable to be able see how judges in different jurisdictions are addressing the crisis. It is invaluable to have those lines of communication open, and to be able to see how judges and practitioners from across the country are tackling courthouse reopening, jury selection, jury trials, technology best practices, and the implementation of workplace health and safety measures. 

In the last few months, the Judicial Division mobilized to create resources for judges, including a COVID-19 resource page for judges.  The ABA’s COVID-19 Task Force, with immediate past JD Chair Justice Elizabeth Lang Miers acting as Chair of the Court Processes Committee for the Task Force, has put together excellent and very-well received webinars on the resumption of jury trials and the reopening of courthouses.. 

As I begin my chairmanship of the NCFTJ in what will undoubtedly be a very different year for everyone, I want to commit our Conference to supporting our members around the country as we try to work our way through this crisis.  Having access to curated resources, such as COVID-19 related court orders from around the country, and programming featuring our colleagues who have taken thoughtful, in depth analysis into these issues, provides a real benefit to our members.  Additionally, I want to make sure that we remain committed to law student outreach, with our new-found proficiency with the Zoom platform creating expanded opportunities for this type of engagement.  As disruptive as this crisis has been to practitioners and judges, I cannot begin to imagine the impact on law students, and the uncertainty it must be causing. We have to be there for them.  And I know that with spirit of service that our members have, that we will meet this challenge.