Title: IT Manager
Court: Multnomah Circuit Court, Oregon Judicial Department
NACM Title: Board Director, Vice Chair of DEI Committee, and NACM Website Coordinator
Number of judges at court: 330 employees and 58 judicial officers, 58 courtrooms across 5 court locations
NACM member since 2009
Tips for Hybrid Hearings
What is the definition of a hybrid hearing?
A hybrid hearing involves one or more parties present in the courtroom and one or more participants appearing remotely. Remote participants can appear through the court’s video or teleconferencing platform, where they can see and hear the parties in the courtroom, and the parties in the courtroom can see and hear them.
The Oregon Judicial Department currently uses (Cisco) Webex as its video conference platform and For the Record (FTR) for the official recording. A hybrid hearing can be recorded using the video conference platform and/or the courtroom-recording system.
A hybrid hearing differs from a fully remote hearing. In a fully remote hearing, all parties, including the judge, appear from remote locations, and no one is present in the courtroom. A fully remote hearing is recorded in Webex.
Are there any case types that are not suitable for hybrid hearings?
All hearings, for all case types, may have at least one party that appears remotely. If one or more participants appear remotely, the hearing is a hybrid hearing. Before the hearing begins, the judge and their staff need to work with the parties to determine who is permitted to appear remotely.
How does the court satisfy open-court mandates when conducting hybrid hearings?
If a hearing is fully remote the court can live stream the event by posting a link to the hearing on the court’s website. Hearings that are partially remote must either open the courtroom to the public, be live streamed, or have a designated viewing room for people to view the hearing. There are certain case types that our court will not live stream so these hearings must have spaces in the courthouse for the public to view the hearing.
Here is a list of case types that will not be live streamed in our court:
- Abuse orders
- Civil commitment
- Confidential and sealed cases
- Contempt of court resulting from a violation of a restraining order
- Protective proceedings
- Quarantine/Isolation orders
- Restraining orders
- Sex crimes, when a victim has requested the proceeding not be recorded
- Stalking order
- Trade secrets
What is remote jury selection, and how does it work in your court?
In remote jury selection, summoned jurors participate in voir dire by video instead of appearing in person at the courthouse. At the Multnomah Circuit Court, we try to mirror traditional, in-person jury selection as closely as possible. For most jurors, the process goes like this:
- A juror receives a summons in the mail.
- The juror scans the QR code on the first page of their summons, which takes them to a short online questionnaire. The questionnaire asks about eligibility, technology, and hardships. (If the juror is unable to complete the questionnaire online, they have an option to mail in their responses.)
- The juror receives an email explaining how to download and install Webex on a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
- If randomly selected for a trial panel, the juror receives an email containing the Webex join link for their remote jury selection, as well as instructions regarding when to join.
- At the designated time, the juror uses the Webex link to join the remote jury selection.
- The clerk will ensure the juror’s camera, speakers, and mic are working properly.
- Once the judge, attorneys, and other jurors join, voir dire begins.
If a juror does not possess a computer, tablet, or smartphone necessary to participate remotely, we instruct them to come to the courthouse, where we assign them a quiet space with the appropriate technology.
In a typical panel of remote jury selection, there’s the judge, the clerk, the attorneys, the parties to the case, and up to 20 jurors. (Some trials require multiple panels of 20 jurors.) Almost everyone in the remote jury selection appears remotely, though the court makes accommodations for parties who appear in person or are in custody. These individuals are each set up before a computer with a webcam so that everyone is clearly visible during remote jury selection.
What type of technology is necessary for hybrid hearings?
In the courtroom, hybrid hearings require the ability at least to hear remote participants so that their voices can be clearly captured by the courtroom-recording system. Courts can choose to incorporate cameras into their courtroom technology, which will enable remote participants to see courtroom participants. Large displays can be placed in courtrooms on carts or mounted on the wall to allow courtroom participants to view those who are appearing remotely.
For remote hearing participants, hybrid hearings require a computer, tablet, or smartphone. The device must have a camera, microphone, and speaker, plus a stable Internet connection.
What are the advantages of incorporating hybrid hearings into your court business process plans?
Allowing parties to appear remotely can reduce court costs, reduce hearing set-overs, reduce failure-to-appear rates, and in some cases improve the visibility of the party appearing remotely. One thing we learned in the pandemic is that we cannot indefinitely set cases over due to illness or the threat of illness. Allowing parties to appear remotely can avoid costly and time-consuming set overs. We are starting conversations with managers and judges to consider using the technology available to allow hearings to continue if one or more participants cannot be in the courtroom, but they are able to appear remotely.
Hybrid hearings allow judges and court staff the opportunity to hold hearings that would previously be automatic set overs. No longer does an unexpected transportation/weather/mild cold symptom need to prevent scheduled hearings if one or more parties can appear remotely. Participants who have cold and flu symptoms should be encouraged to appear remotely rather than spreading the illness in the courtroom. We have such a backlog of cases awaiting trial after 2020 that now is the time to take advantage of technology and move toward hybrid hearings whenever necessary.
What challenges do judges and court staff face while participating in hybrid hearings?
Court staff need to make sure that remote parties have the information they need to connect to the hearing. Court staff need to be able to have some time before the hearing begins to orient both the people in the courtroom and the remote parties on how to best communicate. The process for court staff can be time-consuming and monotonous.
Judges must contend with remote parties who are having technical difficulties. Many of these challenges can be avoided if court staff are allowed time to orient the remote parties prior to the hearing. The most common problems are caused by remote participants using wireless devices and remote participants not muting their audio. Court staff should instruct participants to use the highest quality connection possible when connecting to the hearing. Remote participants who are teleconferencing should either use a phone that is wired or a cell phone that has a full-strength signal. Remote participants who connect into a video conference should be using a computer that is plugged into their modem or router directly. Computers that are connected to a wireless network will be more likely to have glitchy video or audio that cuts in and out. Court staff must train remote users to mute themselves when they are not talking and unmute themselves when they are asked to speak. Court staff may have the ability to mute remote parties who aren’t paying attention, which will avoid unnecessary interruption. Court staff should also ask video conference participants to either use a virtual background, blur their background, and make sure that they do their best to prevent anything that may visually distract them or other participants (i.e., animals, children, open windows).
Are you able to accommodate participants who require interpretation?
Yes, jurors or parties who do not speak English and require interpretation can participate in hybrid hearings. If consecutive interpretation will suffice, the interpreter joins the hybrid hearing just like the other participants, the interpreter interprets the parts of the hearing relevant to the non-English speaker, and relays the non-English speaker’s responses to the rest of the participants. All participants hear the non-English interpretation, and it’s recorded on the record.
If simultaneous interpretation is required, the interpreter joins the hybrid hearing, then they call the non-English speaker on the phone and interpret the hearing over the phone. The non-English speaker mutes their computer speakers, watches the hearing on their computer, and hears the hearing in their native language on the phone. All participants hear the hearing in English.
Any suggestions on accommodating judges? Some judges really hate technology.
Administrators should hire or reassign support staff into remote-hearing-support roles. If you can’t hire new staff, reassign duties and make someone a remote-hearings specialist. This person can provide extra technical support to judges and judicial staff who need it.
Instruct your clerks or dedicated court staff to set aside time before every hybrid hearing to make sure that remote users are connected using the appropriate equipment and that they understand how to manage the teleconference and video conference settings.
Any pointers for setting up hybrid hearings?
If you are lucky enough to receive funding to build a new courthouse, or funding to remodel existing courtrooms, take advantage of the opportunity to upgrade your audio and video systems to the latest technology. Work with your budget office to increase your IT budget to cover the additional audio-video hardware, software, and support staff. Dedicate trained staff to manage audio-video systems rather than relying on overworked helpdesk technicians who are managing all the other technology in the courthouse.
For those courthouses that outsource their tech support or who have regional support, make sure that you have support when you need it. Review and update support agreements and make sure that you get the support you need when you need it. Small jurisdictions should consider training at least two staff members as audio-video experts. Have support staff create prehearing checklists so that they can properly instruct remote participants and reduce unnecessary hearing delays and annoying interruptions.
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Dawn Palermo is the judicial administrator
at Jefferson Parish Juvenile Court, Louisiana.