The new normal for a hearing in the United States Court for the Western District of Virginia sounds much the same at first: check-ins with counsel, shuffling of papers, quiet murmuring.
However, this proceeding is a little different, substituting video and audio for the more conventional in-person hearing as U.S. District Courts across the nation shift to virtual hearings.
Like many institutions and industries across the country, federal courts have been forced to adapt to social distancing requirements to help curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Though telephonic hearings have often been used for civil hearings in the Western District — which includes Charlottesville — due to the constitutional right to a speedy trial, some criminal hearings have begun to use virtual means as well.
On March 24, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski extended the restriction on in-person court proceedings for any in-person criminal, civil, and bankruptcy proceeding until May 1 and grand jury proceedings set before April 17.
According to Julie Dudley, clerk of court for Virginia’s Western U.S. District courts, since March 24 approximately 16 hearings have been held by video conference and 17 have been held by telephonic conferencing.
“Our magistrate judges have held the most video conference hearings because they handle the criminal matters that cannot be postponed,” Dudley said. “For defendants who are in jail, the jails have been very cooperative with our requests to conduct these video conference hearings.”
Several more hearings are scheduled in the coming weeks to be held using ZoomGov, a more secure version of the popular Zoom video software that has become widely used in recent months. The majority of the hearings have been in civil cases, Dudley said, but criminal matters are a growing portion.
Friday morning, Judge Urbanski oversaw a civil hearing via video conference which was available for the public to listen in to. After some brief technical difficulties the hearing started, with the judge thanking counsel for their flexibility before proceeding as a judge would in a conventional hearing.
“We are in extremely difficult times, unprecedented times, and I appreciate everyone taking the time to make these oral arguments happen,” he said.
Though video and telephonic conferencing present logistical challenges for court staff members, many of whom are now working from home, some in the technology field are heralding the shift as a boon to the judicial system.
Mehran Ebadolahi, CEO of the LSAT and bar exam prep company TestMax and an advocate for remote communication in the legal field, said historically the judicial system has been resistant to change.
However, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the judicial systems nationwide are being forced to find ways to continue their work.
“You’re seeing two of the most change-resistant industries — education and the judicial system — really being forced to move forward,” he said. “It’s been interesting to see how it has developed and I’m curious to see how it affects the system going forward.”
However, Ebadolahi said courts transitioning to virtual hearings is not without its challenges, particularly if the need continues past the time where criminal proceedings can be continued.
“If we start to move to a remote world where we need juries, what would that look like? Factor in people who don’t have access to high quality broadband and the issue gets more complicated,” he said. “Compare it to remote learning and you have to consider the drop off from students from a lower socioeconomic status who may not have access to high-quality broadband internet.”
In general, Ebadolahi said he hopes the federal courts continue to embrace video and telephonic conferences, which he believes have the potential to make hearings more streamlined and efficient.
“This is a remarkable time for the things that you hoped would have been considered earlier making their way into wide use,” he said.