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Courts via video take root in NW

Judges foresee post-covid effect by Tracy Neal | May 3, 2021 at 4:30 a.m.
In this image taken from court video, Harvey Weinstein (lower right) attends a hearing from Wende Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison, near Buffalo, N.Y., on Friday, April 30, 2021, joined by his lawyer, Norman Effman (upper right). Both were visible in Erie County (N.Y.) Court to Judge Kenneth Case (left) and Erie County Assistant District Attorney Colleen Curtin Gable (standing left center). (New York Unified Court System via AP)

Several Northwest Arkansas judges and lawyers say videoconferencing will likely continue to be used in some court proceedings after the covid-19 pandemic.

They differ on whether the continued use is preferable. Videoconferencing can save time and money, especially for expert witnesses and interpreters, they agreed. But in-person proceedings allow for better communication between all parties and can be particularly important in criminal proceedings, they said.

Judges across the country have been using online systems to avoid in-person proceedings and help prevent the virus's spread.

Benton County Circuit Judge Doug Schrantz said judges will still rely on videoconferencing in some ways once in-person proceedings are again the norm.

"The lasting impact will be on short matters," Schrantz said. "Judges will prefer to hold in-person hearings for anything of any length."

Schrantz said the sound quality with videoconferencing is poor sometimes, and court reporters may have a difficult time keeping a record of the proceedings, Schrantz said.

Schrantz said more expert witnesses -- such as doctors -- may be allowed to testify online instead of having to appear in court.

"They usually have good Wi-Fi and good technology while the average Joe doesn't," Schrantz said.

Timothy Holtoff, the court information systems director for the Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts, said court administrators and technology professionals all over the country have been asking about the impact of covid-19 for the past year. The office works to support the state courts on behalf of the Arkansas Supreme Court, according to its website.

"Many of us are hopeful that some of the innovation in court management brought on by the pandemic will have long-lasting effects on the judiciary," he said. "Virtual hearings, when appropriate, is one example of those innovations. For my team at the Administrative Office of the Courts, the ability to decrease travel and provide remote training to our courts has had a great impact both on cost and time.

"An interpreter could appear virtually in back-to-back hearings on opposite sides of the state, which would be impossible to do in person," he said.

The office has been providing the videoconferencing service Zoom for the courts, Holtoff said. Zoom provided the state courtesy licenses from March until mid-September last year, he said. The office paid $105,920 for one year of licenses beginning in September, but the cost was reimbursed by money received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Benton County Circuit Judge Tom Smith, who presides over juvenile court, agreed the pandemic experience will likely change the courts. Videoconferencing will be useful if there are witnesses who can't get to court or if a witness lives far away, Smith said.

Smith, who also presides over drug court, has resumed in-person appearances for participants who face sanctions.

Washington County Prosecutor Matt Durrett expects videoconferencing to continue to be a part of the legal process.

"The judges, obviously it's their courtrooms and they're going to make decisions that they feel are in the best interest of themselves, the participants, the spectators and everything else," he said.

Victoria Morris, a Bentonville lawyer, is not a fan.

"You don't get the same impact if you are not in court with a witness," she said. "I am afraid courts will like it and continue to use it. I think we need to be face-to-face with judges."

Morris also worries court proceedings are too dependent on the internet.

"If you don't have good internet, then you are in trouble," she said.

Washington County Circuit Judge John Threet, who hears mostly civil and domestic relations cases, said the pandemic hasn't affected his docket much.

"The only thing we've been having to reset are jury trials, so some of those are going to be out for another year longer than they would have been originally, but jury trials aren't the biggest part of anyone's docket," Threet said.

"Losing that live thing would be difficult for attorneys. I would not have liked it back in the prosecutor's office," Threet said. "Of course, you're not going to have a jury trial, but even doing hearings with witnesses and such, you lose a little of the confrontation when it's over a TV screen, as opposed to being live."

Threet said it's more difficult to judge someone's demeanor from a head shot when they are talking on a screen. He believes attorneys would rather see witnesses in person.

Still, there are benefits, he said.

"People aren't having to travel to the courtroom," he said. "You turn it on, you start the hearing. When you're done, you turn it off, and you're finished. For a lot of them, it's the travel. They don't have to come to the courthouse and go through security and do all that stuff."

Billy Bob Webb, a Springdale lawyer, said he's made a few appearances in courtrooms in the past year for misdemeanor, civil and domestic cases. He looks forward to interacting with colleagues again.

"I don't look forward to fighting traffic to get to court in either county," Webb said. "That has been a blessing."

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