Courtrooms are places of serious business.
They're places where a defendant might lose his liberty or where a judge's decision will influence a family's dynamics for years to come. Adoptions are finalized, but a teenager might also be sent to a juvenile detention center. Or where a judgment rights a wrong in civil court.
But they aren't usually places that allow much in the way of funny business ... until covid-19 came along.
Oh, sure, there was the occasional funny remark by a judge -- some tend to be funnier than others -- or some attorney trying too hard to sound lawyerly, such as "How far apart were the vehicles at the time of the collision?"
But covid-19, awful as it is in so many other respects, has brought on a whole new level of "funny" to the courts.
A recent news story referred to it as "decorum," which we've always appreciated in courtrooms. It seems the introduction of video conferencing with witnesses and other court participants have from time to time become, shall we say, awkward.
Circuit judges in Benton County say the online experience is a bit less formal. One woman testified using her phone from the cookie aisle at a dollar store. Others have participated as they drove down the road, prompting a "pull over" demand from the bench.
As with workplace video conferences, witnesses have had their dogs interrupt because, well, dogs will be dogs. And trains will be trains: One hearing had to be paused because a man was near the tracks when a train decided to go by. We can hear the defense now: "Your honor, my client was railroaded!"
A lot of the disorder in the courts has boiled down to clothing choices -- making sure attorneys dress as they would if they were in the courtroom and making witnesses actually put shirts on for their moment before the judge. It's all enough to get someone held in contempt.
But the judges, for the most part, have exercised restraint, understanding that the courts, out of an abundance of caution, are electronically stepping into people's lives and homes. It's only natural a few issues of decorum will arise and require a little of the court's patience to work out. They certainly need to ensure everyone respects the serious nature of the proceedings, but not everyone will necessarily have the requisite social graces and may need a little help.
Those involved in video conferencing with the courts just need to remember what office workers around the world have learned. The judge can only see what the camera sees. The rest doesn't really matter ... unless you stand up. Our unlicensed legal advice: Don't.
What’s the point?
With more people taking the stand in court electronically, judges have had to show some patience when it comes to decorum.