Recently in this column, I put forward the proposition that Municipal Courts, as we have come to know them, have changed dramatically with Covid and common internet use and that these changes would permanently affect the very nature of how these courts operate going forward. With the passage of time since my last effort, I offer a redux of what it appears to have become over the intervening few months.
If there is a basic theme, it would be that the system is in a general state of disorganization. There is no consistency throughout the State as to what courts are doing and how they are doing it. There is no basic process that makes the experience the same in one court as another. Different conferencing systems are used in different courts, sometimes Zoom, sometimes Microsoft Meetings. Some courts require one click to enter the system, some require the entry of meeting numbers and passwords. Some courts admit everyone at the outset, others establish times for appearances. Bottom line is that there does not seem to be a basic procedure followed by all courts.
Notwithstanding these problems, most attorneys are finding that digital appearances save time and money often wasted on driving from court to court, waiting to speak to a Prosecutor, waiting again to be heard by the Court and ultimately waiting to pay fines and complete paperwork. Furthermore, most Prosecutors and attorneys take to the phones prior to appearances to flesh out discovery issues and possible resolution. Bottom line is that cases can be managed and resolved much more efficiently than with traditional in person appearances. That certainly also applies to defendants who had to sit in court for hours before their cases were heard on multiple occasions. They are certainly treated in a better way than they had when physically present.
Problems exist however, when dispute resolution requires “in person” in the Covid age. Most disappointing is the fact that very little direction seems to have been provided from any Court or State agency regarding best practices to insure the safety for all when the matter is determined to proceed with in person hearings and trials. I have personally made three in person appearances in different towns since the shutdown of courts. When inquiring as to what procedures were being followed to protect my health and the health of all involved, different responses were provided.
Some towns have gone out of their way to “rebuild” their court rooms by creating clear plastic shielding to separate attorneys from each other, Judges, Court Administrators and witnesses. Some towns took temperatures of all who entered as well as contact information. Other towns in which I have appeared have done nothing other than requiring that we mask and telling us that counsel tables had been cleaned.
I inquired in all courts whether they had determined whether any of those appearing had been out of the State, had been in contact with people who were infected or had exhibited symptoms. Any of us who have been to a doctor, hospital as well as other public gathering places are familiar with these types of inquiries. It would seem more than obvious that these questions should be asked of those who come into contact with numerous people on a regular basis, for example police Officers and Troopers. Notwithstanding requests for this information, it was not made available.
Then of course, there is the question of whether we are even entitled to in person appearances. In the Supreme Court’s earlier Orders, it was clear that Defendants were entitled to these hearings if there was an issue involving license loss or incarceration. The Court’s most recent Order however, includes language making it less clear whether a Defendant can confront his accusers in person as opposed to on a screen.
Then there is the issue of general resistance from some Courts when an in person appearance is requested. Apparently, an administrative procedure is required to obtain approval to conduct in person hearings. I have been told by Judges that my request for an in person hearing was not being considered because, in the Judge’s own words, it was “too much trouble” to get the approval.
From my own perspective, going back to court has been an interesting experience after laboring in front of a screen for months. The morning of my first post Covid trial, I worried whether my suit would still fit. Once that hurdle was cleared (with room to spare, I would add!), I then was faced with the task of tying my tie, again something I hadn’t done for some time. Once success was achieved, the last thing to do was remove the dust from my shoes, which was achieved after a little effort. When I finally got down to trying the case, it was good to be back in the saddle!
We all recognize the Municipal Court system has continued to function under incredibly difficult and unusual (hopefully) conditions. It needs however, leadership from the top to make sure that the new way of handling Municipal Court cases works. Too much is at stake, namely defaulting back to an inefficient and dysfunctional systems of 560 some odd courts.