Tennessee Judges Take Lead in Using Technology to Weather Pandemic

April 23, 2020

Pressed to keep courts open and functioning while under a state of emergency, judges in Tennessee have embraced new technologies to continue to hear emergency cases and keep dockets moving forward. Traditionally, court proceedings in Tennessee are held in person with judges, attorneys, defendants, witnesses, court reporters, interpreters, juries, bailiffs, and others leading to crowds of ten to several hundred people in the courtroom at once. Bringing the justice system to a halt was not an option so, armed with laptops, webcams, smartphones, and hotspots, judges turned to technology.

Very few judges had the ability to go mobile before March 13, 2020, the day the Tennessee Supreme Court issued its first order suspending most in-person proceedings.

“As soon as the Supreme Court issued its Order, we were off and running to ensure all our Judges had both the hardware and software that they needed for remote hearings in order to guarantee that constitutional rights and emergency hearings were heard as if there were no pandemic,” Administrative Office of the Courts Director Deborah Taylor Tate said.

Through tremendous efforts of the Administration Office of the Courts Technology Team, State of Tennessee Strategic Technology Solutions, and county information technology teams, dozens of laptops, VPNs, Zoom licenses, and WebEx accounts have been installed across the state. By the end of the first week, more than half of the judges across the state had expanded their use of video conferencing to reduce the need for in-person hearings.

“The citizens of Tennessee can be assured that the Judiciary is continuing to efficiently and creatively provide justice for all,” Director Tate said.

While the stories of innovation in the face of crisis are too numerous to count, below are examples from around the court system.

 

Greene County General Sessions Court Judge Kenneth N. Bailey, Jr.

The pandemic led to a unique collaboration between Judge Bailey’s court and the United States District Court located just down the street.

Judge Bailey’s court is equipped with a video system that allows him to communicate with inmates in the nearby Greene County Detention Center. One morning, United States Magistrate Judge Cynthia Wyrick, at the federal courthouse, needed to hold two hearings with inmates in the jail. She ended up holding video hearings with those inmates by remotely accessing Judge Bailey’s video equipment.

“I opened up my video system, she accessed it remotely, and so while I was having a hearing in my courtroom and dealing with a couple of inmates, on my laptop in my courtroom were the federal judge and the inmate in jail,” Judge Bailey said. “They were having the hearing on my laptop, and I just muted it. I thought that was very unique that I was having a hearing here in General Sessions Court while on my laptop there was a hearing going on in federal court.”

Judge Bailey has also been using the video system extensively recently to minimize safety issues.

“I have probably in the last two weeks taken 15 to 20 guilty pleas by video,” he said. “That has enabled us to not have to bring those defendants up from the jail and expose them to people here in the courthouse. And vice versa, we’ve not been exposed to them. It’s safer for everybody. It’s worked out very well, and it has kept our cases moving along.”

Greene County first purchased this equipment via a court security grant from the Administrative Office of the Courts a couple of years ago. Judge Bailey had been using it primarily to arraign felony defendants, but now he is arraigning everybody by video.

Judge Bailey said it has been surreal to go from presiding over a packed courtroom to one holding just a few people, but he said everybody has been taking the current situation in stride and working together to keep court running as smoothly as possible.

“I think that this pandemic has made people in the justice system think outside the box more, and I think that will benefit everyone down the road from attorneys, to litigants, to defendants, to citizens,” Judge Bailey said. “I think everyone is having to think of ways to do things differently and I think that will help us in the long run.”

 

Thirtieth Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Mary Wagner

Judge Wagner is putting technology to a number of different uses in her courtroom after receiving what she called a “self-taught crash course in Zoom” a few weeks ago.

“I’m using a combination of conference phone calls and Zoom video calls to do everything from simple status conferences, to taking evidence and approving minor settlements,” she said. “I have done motion hearings, even more complex dispositive motions by zoom video. This morning I did an uncontested divorce by Zoom.  We even have evidentiary contested hearings set.”

Judge Wagner has been laying out the case for using Zoom and other technologies to those who have been a little hesitant to embrace the new technology, including some attorneys. She is telling them that they can still get a lot done without physically stepping foot in the courtroom.

“We don’t’ want to just defer everything,” she said. “Zoom is a great tool that we were not aware of before. But we are using it now a lot.”

So far, Zoom is making a very difficult set of circumstances much easier for some of those with court business.

“Obviously this is not a situation that we want to be in,” she said. “We want it over as soon as safely possible. But given what we’re working with, I’m very happy to have the option for Zoom, and I think it’s working well.”

She hopes that attorneys and litigants will embrace these technologies, allowing courts to function as effectively as possible.

“I’d say the attorneys and the litigants are doing great at being flexible, accommodating, and patient,” she said. “I would encourage the attorneys and the litigants to use these resources to continue business as best they can during this time. You’ll get the same judge and same attention as you would in person.”

 

Twelfth Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Justin Angel

Before Covid-19, Judge Angel had used some technological tools like Skype before in civil cases, but he had never used them for criminal cases. In the past few weeks that has changed, with Judge Angel utilizing Zoom mostly to hold different proceedings in criminal court, including revocations, arraignments, bond motions, and pleas. He has also been using Zoom to hold judicial meetings with the other judges in his district.

“It’s working really well,” Judge Angel said.

Like other judges across the state and country, Judge Angel said it is definitely an adjustment to do his job remotely.

“As a judge you’re used to being in the courtroom, so it is unique to handle judicial proceedings from my home office in front of a TV screen, but it’s effective, and the court reporter is on Zoom at her house and she’s listening to it and everything’s being recorded,” he said. “Everything’s operating as it should be. We’re just not doing it in person. It is surreal.”

Judge Angel said that the current circumstances have proven that technology has an important role to play in the justice system.

“This technology is really allowing people of all different ages and backgrounds to come together and keep the justice system rolling,” he said. “I think it has definitely opened some eyes to the use and benefit of technology, and it will just continue to expand even when we get back into the regular swing of things.”

The use of technology during this pandemic serves not only a functional role, but a symbolic one as well, in Judge Angel’s view, because it allows judges to show that they can still be successful leaders even during difficult times.

“I think we should encourage the judges all over the state to remain vigilant and to use every technology and every method we have to keep court open and to provide access to justice,” he said. “People are looking at us as leaders in the community and leaders in the judicial system for guidance and for normalcy, and so we have to step up and take care of that role.”

 

Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Camille R. McMullen

Judge McMullen’s first use of Zoom technology in a court proceeding took place not on official Court of Criminal Appeals business, but as a participant in a moot court competition at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

Because scholarships are awarded to the winners of the competition, the decision was made to go forward with it utilizing remote technology rather than cancel the moot court. Judge McMullen embraced the decision.

“I wanted to see how it worked because I think it would be a great example for us to model our oral arguments on,” she said.

Judge McMullen said that she and her colleagues on the Court of Criminal Appeals have participated in Zoom video conferences before to get a feel for the technology, but that they have not yet employed this technology in the courtroom.

As for her experience with the Moot Court, Judge McMullen was impressed with how well Zoom worked.

“It was surprisingly easy to do, and I think it served its purpose,” Judge McMullen said.

She admits to having been a bit skeptical about using platforms like Zoom for certain court functions, but she is coming around to the idea that they could have great benefit if used selectively.

“I was one of those people who, especially for oral arguments, did not actually want to use technology  as a replacement, but after going through the experience I did with the University of Memphis Moot Court I don’t have a problem with that, but I want to be cautious,” Judge McMullen said. She is not in favor of a system where remote video technology would become the norm. There is still value, she believes, in in-person court proceedings. But in times like these, things like Zoom can serve the public interest well.

The use of Zoom during the moot court also won approbation from a demographic very important to Judge McMullen: her two teenage kids.

“They thought it was very cool,” she said.

 

Fayette County General Sessions Court Judge James P. Gallagher

Judge Gallagher got an early start preparing for the pandemic, convening a meeting with his three-person staff in early March to plan things out. One issue that came up early was how to handle the county’s recovery court program.

“I explained to them that we need to start getting prepared,” he said. “My recovery court director and I had already been talking because he was having issues with, ‘what do I do with these recovery court participants? How am I going to talk with them if they are infected?’”

Judge Gallagher decided to explore using Zoom.

“We started doing conferencing to learn it,” he said. “We started doing staff meetings. We do one or two staff meetings a day via Zoom. We started seeing the benefits of it.”

Fayette County Drug Court Director Daniel Brown began meeting with participants via Zoom as well.

“He reported back to me and said, ‘Wow, this thing is clear as a bell. We see each other. We can talk to each other,’” Judge Gallagher remembered.

A related problem was that Drug Court participants could not fulfill their requirements to attend support meetings due to the pandemic. Judge Gallagher wondered if it was possible to hold those via Zoom also. They held one meeting, it went well, and then they opened up future meetings to the community.

“We started positing it on Facebook to let everybody know, and people started joining it,” he said.

Judge Gallagher saw how this technology was filling a critical need in the community and began to think of other ways to use it. Next up was Juvenile Court. Judge Gallagher had noticed there were often transportation problems related to parents getting their kids to court for informal adjustments. He asked his Youth Services Officer if it was possible to use Zoom for these proceedings.

“And she did, and it’s working great,” Judge Gallagher said. “The parents love it because they don’t have to drive all the way down here.”

Given these success stories, Judge Gallagher decided to expand the use of Zoom. He conducted a Zoom meeting with the county district attorney, local attorneys, and other stakeholders outlining his plans. They agreed to give it a try.

On one recent morning, Judge Gallagher oversaw his juvenile docket using Zoom. Court users simply click on a button and enter a waiting room. When it is their turn, Judge Gallagher just clicks a button “and they come into the main screen, and I see them and I hear them,” he said. The proceedings are recorded so that a record is preserved.

“All of the parties, I put them under oath, and then I had the clerk call the case,” he said. “We did everything just like normal. I started with the DCS attorney or the guardian ad litem, and we took testimony, we took argument, we took ideas. I did orders for hair follicles and supervised visitation and then when I was finished with them I moved them out and brought in the next group.”

He admits he was somewhat unsure about how the day would go, but was pleasantly surprised.

“I thought today was going to be just a mess, a mess,” he said. “But I spoke with all of the lawyers afterwards, and I will tell you the truth the only negative thing that was said, if you can count it as negative, was we need to learn the technology.  All the lawyers absolutely loved it, loved it. And, also, everybody’s safe.”

Judge Gallagher began his legal career in a time when technologies like Zoom were more science fiction than reality, but he has quickly come to appreciate how vital these technologies can be in expanding the cause of justice.

“I’m an old-fashioned guy,” he said. “I started way back in the ‘70s. I’m 40-plus years in this stuff. I don’t like a lot of change when it comes to the law, but this is becoming more the new norm of just how the world operates. We want to have all these access to justice programs, well there are a lot of people for whom this might be the only way they can participate. They should have a voice. If transportation is a problem, that means you’re just left out?”

He hopes that the widespread adoption of Zoom and similar videoconferencing tools will persist even after the pandemic with positive effects on Tennessee courtrooms. It has already helped Judge Gallagher better prepare for a post-quarantine world.

“A couple of lawyers said they are just so happy they are not going to have an avalanche of cases to deal with in May or June or whenever this is over with,” he said.

 

Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County General Sessions Presiding Judge Lynda Jones

As presiding judge of the Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County General Sessions Court, Judge Jones has been comfortable using remote video technologies for some time. The Court first used the Webex platform to broadcast from area hospitals and to hold hearings from the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute several years ago.

With implementation of special Covid-19 protocols, the Court has expanded its use of videoconferencing technology to more local hospitals, which are set up with screens, speakers, and monitors.

“The judge and clerk can see the doctor and the defendant,” Judge Jones said. “The lawyers can be present either at the hospital or usually they’re with the judge and the clerk.”

This system has proven to be perfectly suited to the current situation with Covid-19.

“I’m grateful because it gives everyone a sense of relief to be able to use the video,” Judge Jones said. “It cuts down on contact which we all need right now. It keeps us from traveling from our homes to a mental health facility. It’s definitely been a safety measure and a good thing.”

Judge Jones is also looking at ways to use technology to handle some disturbing trends that have accompanied the pandemic. One of those is a steep rise in incidents of domestic violence as more people are quarantined at home together.

“We are collaborating with the circuit court judges and redrawing the application for orders of protection,” she said. “It will allow potential victims to get an order of protection faster via video.”

She thinks that there may be a place for the increased use of technology in the justice system even after the pandemic is over. Having judges review and sign search warrants electronically in certain cases is one example she raised.

Even with the new possibilities that technological tools provide, Judge Jones still thinks that in-person court appearances will always be a beneficial and necessary part of the justice system. It is not an either/or question, though.

“There’s probably a good blend that could exist after this crisis,” she said.

Thirtieth Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Mary Wagner conducts a hearing using Zoom.