Lessons from a Video Court Observation

by Brian Wilson, Associate

After catching up yesterday with some former colleagues, I decided to take some time and virtually attend a judge’s calendar call. Some of the things we experienced may prove relevant for many people over the next weeks (or months) until we are back to normal.

Too Long; Didn’t Read Summary

  • Give yourself extra time to download and register for any video conferencing system. If you run into issues, this will give you time to contact the host ahead of time to get them resolved.
  • Dress for work as normal. (I hope this much was obvious, but see this article about some Florida attorneys for a laugh.)
  • Use headphones to avoid echo and feedback.
  • If a client is present, consider using a separate encrypted instant messaging app to send notes and discuss topics privately.

The Experience

The judge who hosted this calendar call used WebEx; a video conferencing platform run by Cisco. The platform was chosen because of its ability to allow members of the public to attend and thereby keep the courts open and public. After clicking the link provided, I had to register with WebEx by providing the usual contact information and download a browser extension. This process was very easy, and the instructions were clear, but be prepared to take a few extra minutes to set up for any virtual hearing. I would recommend contacting the host’s office the day before and confirming which software they use to do a dry run if possible.

Viewers were divided into two groups: participants and attendees. Participants included all of the key players – the Judge, the Assistant District Attorney, the Public Defender, the Defendants, private attorneys, and Parole Officers. As an attendee, my video-feed was not displayed and my microphone was muted by the event host. I could not unmute it.

The Judge was seated on the bench in his normal robes with the court seal positioned behind him. Defendants were brought one-at-a-time, in masks, before a webcam in the jail with a sheriff’s deputy. Attorneys attended from their offices or living rooms, and they were all dressed for court.

The proceedings ran mostly as normal, but some issues did arise. As the Judge took guilty pleas, there was audible echo and feedback, which is not uncommon on most video calls. I would strongly recommend the use of headphones to avoid this as much as possible. Also, one defendant sought to retract his planned guilty plea. The public defender “pulled a Dr. Fauci” and buried his face in his hands. It’s a natural reaction, but it does highlight the problem of not being able to pull on a client’s sleeve or whisper in his or her ear. For hearings with clients, it would be wise to use a separate, secure instant messenger app to send quick notes.

The event concluded without fanfare. Justice goes on, just now from your living room. Stay safe and be well.