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October 07, 2022 Judicial Division | Technology Column

Remote Hearings in a Post Pandemic World: Adaptation and Adoption of Presumptive Standards in Arizona

By Hon. Samuel A. Thumma, Phoenix, AZ, and Mr. Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer, Phoenix, AZ

The COVID 19 public health emergency has given rise to rapid, widespread adoption of remote court hearings conducted via telephone and, even more so, video conference. Some benefits associated with remote hearings during the pandemic are timely case resolution, expanded access to the court and increased litigant appearance rates. In a 2021 nation-wide survey, the National Center for State Courts found a high level of public support for remote court hearings. Similarly, in Arizona, statewide surveys of the judicial branch, the state bar membership and the public at large reflect high levels of support for remote hearings.

Given the extensive adoption of remote hearing technologies during the last two years, courts across the country are considering which types of remote hearings should be held in a post-pandemic world. Minnesota was one of the first states, if not the first, to adopt standards governing the presumptive conduct of remote court hearings in trial courts, starting in 2021. Building on this model, with some changes, the Arizona Supreme Court recently adopted Presumptive Standards for Remote and In-Person Hearings to be adapted and adopted by Arizona’s trial courts effective October 1, 2022.

In Arizona, recommendations for remote hearings were developed by the Arizona Supreme Court’s Workgroup on Continuity of Court Operations During the COVID 19 Public Health Emergency, known as the Plan B Workgroup. In the early stages of the pandemic, the Plan B Workgroup provided recommendations on health and safety protocols, e-court services, jury management and other pandemic-related issues. Most recently, the Workgroup developed Recommended Remote and In-Person Hearings in Arizona State Courts in the Post-Pandemic World. In doing so, the Workgroup recognized the varying resources and diversity of local court operations across the state and the importance of squarely addressing the “Digital Divide” in local courts and for litigants.

Given these realities, the Plan B Workgroup’s  Recommendations and the Arizona Supreme Court’s policy on remote hearings call for local court adaptation of presumptive remote hearing standards “as necessary due to limitations in local court resources, bandwidth, technology hardware, software, and staffing or, for good cause, to meet unique needs in their respective counties.” Adaptation of the presumptive standards is coordinated on a county-wide basis under the direction of the Superior Court Presiding Judge in each of Arizona’s 15 counties and approved by the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. The policy advocates, but does not mandate, consistency in the presumptive manner in which a hearing is held in all courts at the same level in a given county, e.g., the same listing of presumptive remote and in-person hearings for all municipal courts in a given county.   

Some other key provisions of the Plan B Workgroup’s Recommendations include the following:

  • A remote hearing – also described as a “virtual hearing” -- is defined as any court proceeding in which one or more participants use a technology-based platform such as Zoom, Teams, WebEx.
  • Arizona’s has about 180 trial courts, including superior, justice and municipal courts. The Recommendations specify the types of court hearings which are to be conducted remotely and in-person, by case type and hearing type for all case categories in Arizona’s trial courts. Figure 1 is an excerpt from the Recommendations.
  • Standards on remote selection of grand jurors and conduct of grand jury proceedings are left to the discretion of local courts.
  • Standards on remote selection of jurors and conduct of virtual jury trials are left to the discretion of local courts.
  • Local courts are to post local administrative orders and information about remote and in-person hearings on their websites.
  • A judge assigned to a case may make a hearing-specific deviation from the applicable presumption, with notice to the parties, if holding the hearing in the presumptive manner is not practical or otherwise not in the interest of justice.
  • Parties are allowed to attend presumptively remote hearings in person at the local courthouse.
  • Local courts are encouraged to provide public information for remote hearings and educational programs for participants and to obtain feedback to guide further changes.
  • The Arizona Administrative Office of the Courts is to provide an analysis of the adaption and adoption for consideration by the Arizona Judicial Council in December 2022.

Some Closing Thoughts: The Long View

Throughout the pandemic, the judiciary has generally managed to provide an accessible forum for dispute resolution and continued provision of essential court services. This has been achieved through a spirt of innovation, agile management and a willingness to leverage existing technologies in the court setting.

In the post-pandemic world, the judiciary is uniquely well positioned to build upon new technology-based service delivery systems and “lessons learned” during the pandemic. Objective evaluation of remote hearings and ongoing refinements stand to strengthen court services, thereby further expanding access to justice in the years ahead.  


Acknowledgements: The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Mr. Jeff Shorba, Minnesota State Court Administrator, for his generous sharing of time and information; the tireless work and thoughtful contributions of Arizona’s Plan B Workgroup members; and the strong leadership of the Arizona Supreme Court in the development of Arizona’s Presumptive Standards for Remote and In-Person Hearings.

    Hon. Samuel A. Thumma

    Phoenix, AZ

    Samuel A. Thumma is a Judge of the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division 1, and Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer is the Deputy Director for the Administrative Office of the Courts, Arizona. They serve as co-chairs of Arizona’s Plan B Workgroup.

    Mr. Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer

    Phoenix, AZ

    Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer is the Director of Court Services for the Administrative Office of the Courts, Supreme Court of Arizona.

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