After nearly two years in which most Minnesota court proceedings were conducted by videoconference in response to the COVID pandemic, remote hearings will become a permanent feature in many cases.
The plan was approved by the State Judicial Council, the administrative policy-making authority for the judiciary composed of judges and court officials. It is chaired by Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, Lorie Gildea, who called the new policy “one of the most important and consequential decisions made by our governing body.” It takes effect on June 6.
Although judges may deviate from the plan, many non-criminal matters, including family, domestic violence, harassment, eviction, and major and minor civil hearings, will generally be handled remotely. Evidentiary hearings will generally be conducted in person, as will processing court proceedings.
A major exception will be for criminal cases, where the decision to go remote will be left to the discretion of each of the state’s 10 judicial districts.
Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said the pandemic has sparked a revolution in the way people work.
“It has now sparked a revolution in the way the courts work,” he said.
Gildea said the decision to make remote hearings permanent was in response to feedback from users who have participated in them over the past two years.
She said one of the main advantages of remote hearings is that people who need to appear in court don’t have to take half a day off, arrange transportation, parking or childcare. ‘children.
Gildea said the justice system allows jurisdictions their own control and decision-making over criminal cases due to the 31% increase in backlog cases since the start of the pandemic.
“The idea is that we want to tackle this backlog. We want the local courts to determine what is best for them,” she said. For example, one district may want to make all remote first appearances, while another may want in-person first appearances.
She said the backlog is “a very serious problem”. Today, there are 46,598 felony and felony criminal cases pending in Minnesota state courts, up from 35,681 as of March 19, 2020.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Gildea said, adding that some districts have brought back retired judges or are using arbitrators to deal with the issue. The backlog has been reduced by approximately 2,700 cases over the past four months.
Gildea said discussions will take place after a year of operations under the new plan to determine what changes, if any, could or should be made.
“We’re going to learn from what worked well,” she said.
She added that she believed there would always be many in-person hearings when obtaining evidence, noting its value in assessing the credibility of witnesses.
Local lawyers gave generally positive reviews of the new protocol, while others maintained some skepticism.
“It will be an experiment. I think you can expect to see changes,” said Daly, who fully supports the new protocol. He noted that remote hearings would reduce travel. For example, he said, it would no longer be necessary to pay a lawyer to travel from Grand Marais, Minnesota, to Duluth and then sit in court for an hour waiting to argue a motion.
“It will save time and be quite efficient and it will save a lot of money,” he said.
Twin Cities attorney Marshall Tanick called the new protocols “very cautious,” adding that they “seem to recognize how much remote procedures have been implemented over the past two years.”
“Lawyers and litigants have become accustomed to remote hearings, which, with few exceptions, have been effective and efficient,” Tanick said.
AL Brown, a criminal defense attorney in St. Paul, issued some caveats.
“The cynic in me says they want to leave [criminal cases] to the district so they can get the defendants to plead,” Brown said. If defendants are forced to go to court for multiple appearances, he said, they are more likely to plead guilty because they cannot afford to take three days off. for initial hearings and settlement conferences, fearful of losing their jobs.
But for indigent patrons, he said, “it can be very helpful. They can go to any library, hop on an iPad and appear in court.” He said it was easier for relatives to attend a hearing remotely.
While “the direction on civil matters is pretty clear,” Brown said, “the direction on criminal matters is clear as mud. There should be some consistency.”
Nadine Graves, associate director of community legal services at the Minneapolis Legal Rights Center, which represents people of color in criminal cases, said the policy had “a few bright spots” but was “not very clear.” “. She doesn’t know how the Hennepin County District Court will enforce it.
While remote hearings can be beneficial for clients, Graves said, she worries that virtual hearings could be “so effective that they could be a treadmill to process people through the system.” She said that in an in-person hearing you have to look at the defendant. “I think you see their humanity more.”
Leita Walker, a First Amendment litigator and attorney for Ballard Spahr in Minneapolis, who regularly represents the Star Tribune, said she finds the new policy worthwhile.
“I’ve argued for a few years now, in high profile cases, that we should make it easier for the press and the public to monitor the workings of the justice system, and one way to make that easier is to let people watch the remote proceedings,” she said. “The Non-Criminal Prosecution Order does exactly that.”
The order does not specify how the public will have access to the video link for remote proceedings, “and it is important that the court be very transparent about this and post the link in a prominent public place so that the press and the public can attend the proceedings,” she said.
“I think it’s important for the court to understand that people have the right to attend these proceedings anonymously without providing their name or clicking on the terms and conditions, just as they might walk into a courtroom. physical audience and watching,” Walker said.
Gildea said the public can access hearings remotely by calling their local courthouse. While this can be a somewhat complicated process in some counties, Gildea said it’s “a work in progress.”
“We will continue to receive feedback on this process. Judges always have the discretion to go another route,” she said. “One of the beauties of working in courtrooms is that there are almost always two sides to the story.”