By Peter H. Lederman
Paul Simon wrote a catchy, yet profound song back in the 70s about how we sometimes get so far, but then somehow, well, never make it to the end. “Slip slidin’ away, slip slidin’ away … you know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away.”
I suppose it’s human nature not to want to change, to keep things the way they’ve always been, to be familiar. And perhaps so with our municipal courts.
COVID required a practical rethink of how this system might work on a different “platform.” To meet the challenge of continuing court operation during a deadly pandemic, technology provided a way of doing so through virtual platforms.
What it also did was prove a concept, showing that a reimagined municipal court system was not only viable, but an improvement over what had come to pass over the past 74 years. That platform did more than provide a way to continue operations. It demonstrated that the system could function virtually, without a multitude of stand-alone courts.
The virtual system has developed to the point where most cases are now resolved without in-person appearances. The exception would be those matters involving consequences of magnitude, such as DWI trials, suppression hearings, or where jail was an issue. These cases usually require confrontation of witnesses and more involved legal and factual argument.
That system seems to be working, if imperfectly. Any new system, of course, is going to require adjustment and tweaking along the way. There is, though, current discussion about restoring aspects of the old system, requiring more in-person appearances, with resumption of in-person pre-trial status conferences in DWI and related cases. Doing so, however, would recreate old problems.
We all like to see each other and interact on a personal level. Virtual courts though, are just so much more efficient in getting the most done with the limited time available. This is true for all stakeholders in the system.
The advantage for attorneys and clients is significant. Think of driving miles to a court, then waiting to speak to a prosecutor to ask again that certain discovery be provided, then waiting to appear before the judge to then report that discovery demanded had not been provided and then driving to the next court to repeat the process.
Unfortunately, driving from court to court, sometimes hours away just to discuss discovery production or other procedural matters, was an all too common experience. It was what we did. A modern court system however, must have a better process for resolving its cases.
Even more problematic is a system that also required defendants go through this process, repeatedly appearing and missing time from work, school, child rearing or meeting their other obligations. Then of course, there was the distraction of young children who let everyone know that they were displeased sitting in court with their parents.
When this process is conducted digitally, unnecessary driving time is no longer an issue, and resources are applied most efficiently. One recent experience shows how this is clearly so.
Two DWI matters had been scheduled for the same morning, at the same time. One matter was in Monmouth County, the other in Sussex. The plan was to appear in the Monmouth County case first, then appear in the other matter at 9:30. Turns out, the first court was delayed. I suggested to the court administrator (on the Zoom platform) that I go on to the second court in Sussex and then circle back. I changed screens, resolved the second case, came back to Monmouth and resolved that case, all within half an hour.
Virtual court afforded the flexibility to move nimbly from court to court and not miss a beat. If this was in-person, one matter would not have been resolved, with more than two hours of unnecessary driving. One client would also have wasted the better part of their day waiting for me to appear.
Obviously, virtual courts allow multiple appearances to be scheduled in short order. Of course, appearing virtually also saves fuel, reduces traffic, improves air quality, not to mention the stress for people whose appearances are required.
At the same time, attorneys and clients waiting for their appearance before a virtual court, can better use their time. At my computer I can respond to emails, work on other files, communicate with my office, review briefs, speak with clients or write columns for the Law Journal. My time can be used efficiently and effectively, better representing my clients in what would otherwise be dead time.
Obviously, there are also health considerations. Virtual courts allowed the municipal court system to function while limiting exposure to COVID-19, Delta, Omicron and its successors. With the seemingly constant ebb and flow of infectious disease, courts in large part are ill-suited for safe, controlled contact with others during the pandemic. Many municipal facilities are old, small, with poor or no ventilation systems. Coming back into the court room on a regular basis just to conference cases, raises the possibility of unnecessary exposure from those who may not believe in vaccination, are unmasked or coudn’t care less if the disease is spread.
And then there is the matter of “slip slidin’.” Virtual courts breathe life into the reality of finally achieving reform in our Municipal Court system. Restoring in-person conferencing is a step back in the wrong direction. You know the nearer the destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away!
Peter H. Lederman is a partner with Lomurro, Munson, Comer, Brown & Schottland in Freehold. His practice is limited to representing defendants charged with DWI and related offenses.
Reprinted with permission from the Feb. 14, 2022, issue of the New Jersey Law Journal.
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