Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack on Thursday highlighted state judiciary efforts to provide virtual access to courtrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic and told members of a congressional subcommittee that the U.S. Supreme Court could do the same.
McCormack, who testified before lawmakers of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, said the state Supreme Court workforce got a “head start” in moving to remote work when the novel coronavirus arrived in mid-March. Before the pandemic, the state Supreme Court’s administrative team installed video conferencing systems in each courtroom and gave judges Zoom licenses.
“Our courthouses are high-density places,” McCormack told members of the subcommittee. “And also, unlike restaurants and salons, they are not places people generally have a choice about whether to visit. We had to figure out how to maintain access to justice, and also keep the public and our court employees safe.”
Courts changed more in the last three months than in the past three decades, McCormack told lawmakers. In her state, those changes included creating a Virtual Public Directory, a clickable map constituents can use to find courtroom proceedings and judges to watch across the state. McCormack said it was used more than 25,000 times in May.
The court is also testing text messages to notify the public of court events and payments.
“Dentists do it. Why not judges?” she said.
Subcommittee Chair Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) asked McCormack if she thinks it is wise to employ teleconferencing or live streaming at the trial court level. McCormack said it depends, elaborating that remote platforms are not appropriate for some proceedings. Courts need to give people options, she said, because some litigants will insist on in-person participation, while others will choose to waive it.
“My court just issued a unanimous opinion this week, holding that a witness’s testimony and a criminal trial by Skype violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation,” she said. “There will be proceedings that are not appropriate for remote platforms.”
But proceedings in state courts that are not jury trials or criminal jury trials will be appropriate for such platforms, she clarified. Dockets that come in high volumes — like evictions and debt collection cases — can be virtually processed.
She noted constituents’ participation in watching cases is higher if virtual access to a courtroom is allowed. Participation rates have also spiked because of the pandemic, she said.
“We have seen in jurisdictions that are using remote platforms in these high volume dockets much higher rates of participation,” she said. “How do we proceed in those more difficult cases is something we’re going to all have to think about and work through.”
There are 242 trial courts in Michigan that adjudicate almost three million cases per year. Judges in the state have, so far, conducted more than 50,000 Zoom hearings and are approaching more than 350,000 hours of online proceedings, according to McCormack. Continued use of virtual technologies like teleconferencing software and live streaming can be used to transform the judiciary into a more accessible government branch, she added.
Lawmakers also asked McCormack — who joined the Michigan Supreme Court in 2012 and took office as its chief justice in January 2019 — if she supports efforts encouraging the U.S. Supreme Court to offer video live streaming of federal proceedings.
For years, the high court has offered audio recordings of oral arguments, not video, and only started allowing live audio feeds in April after some lawmakers and news networks pushed for it. Efforts to make those live feeds permanent also are underway.
“What message would the [U.S. Supreme Court] send if it expanded public access, allowing live video and not just audio of its proceedings?” Johnson asked.
McCormack said she is in favor of livestreaming proceedings at the Supreme Court level, as well as in the Courts of Appeals.
“My court has been live streaming our procedures for many years, long before I joined it in 2012,” she said. “The reason we do it is because Michigan is a big state and people who live far away from Lansing that are citizens of our state have, in our view, the right to see what their court is doing and how they’re doing it.”