As most state courts remain closed to the general public, concerns about orderly dispensation of justice abound. The courts have undergone a decade’s worth of changes in just three weeks. Most of the credit has so far gone to the COVID-related administrative orders, the historic Supreme Court arguments by telephone, and shirtless lawyers from Florida video hearings. However, one state has so far emerged as a beacon of efficiency, transparence, and relative ease when it comes to the online courtrooms. The surprising winner is Texas.
First, the state courts have quickly developed and implemented fairly detailed rules applicable to electronic hearings. These are readily accessible on the courts’ main page and on the sub-pages of the various districts and other courts. Trial judges have taken an active role in drafting or adopting their own procedures aimed at easing the process. For example, most accept pre-hearing exhibits by email. The emails are listed clearly in the rules together with contact details of the coordinators. The hearing notices list Zoom call-in details.
Second, the courts have developed and posted conspicuously (an important feature) Zoom training manuals and guides for judges and litigants. These manuals are specifically aimed for litigation use. Further, the judges have quickly undergone rigorous training. Thus, the judges can and do guide the attorneys and litigants through the technical minutiae with ease. For example, the judges navigate Zoom breakout rooms (used, for instance, to create a sidebar with counsel) with great ease. The judges also collaborate, formally and informally, to take advantage of the positive and negative experiences of others. Apparently, you can teach an old (nay, seasoned) dog new tricks.
Finally, the state judiciary has taken the necessary openness of the legal process quite seriously. Thus, each courtroom has implemented a live YouTube feed, which is turned on manually during the hearings. The public has a right to know in Texas. A listing of the court streams together with an indication of whether or not a particular courtroom is “live” is available on the court’s main page: http://streams.txcourts.gov/ For those who find C-SPAN a bit too lively, hundreds of live feeds from the Texas courts are now available daily.
It is no surprise that Texas has recently made headlines as the first state to conduct jury selection online. Most, of course, emphasized the humorous detail that one juror took a call during the process. However, the event is a monumental achievement for the system that made a leap from the technological Stone Age in a month.
Hopefully, other jurisdictions will take advantage of the Texas model. There is no need to reinvent the proverbial wheel, especially where timing remains of the essence.