The COVID-19 pandemic caused a shift in the ways courthouses in the state operated, leading to more use of video platforms at the Cleveland County Courthouse.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman, chief judge in 2020, said discussions began in early March that year about how judges could safety offer access to justice while providing protection from COVID-19. Some jury terms and certain in-person court hearings were suspended, and courthouse access was severely limited initially.
Balkman also helped create general guidelines for in-person proceedings. Video-conference platforms including Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype and Teams were accepted for proceedings that weren’t conducted at the courthouse, like temporary order hearings and emergency ex-parte applications in family law cases.
Additionally, Balkman said he worked with the court clerk to make sure judges had annual subscriptions to BlueJeans, because some judges were using personal funds for the service.
“Prior to the pandemic, I had not conducted any hearings using videoconference technology. I found it was easier to use than I had anticipated,” Balkman said, adding that in December, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office provided iPads for each courtroom for communication with defendants in jail custody.
Balkman said the iPads were another major innovative breakthrough because previously, there was only one telephone and video link to the jail that was shared between all nine judges along with municipal courts in Moore and Norman. Now, FaceTime can be used for interviews.
Additionally, Balkman said many judges brought laptops from home and used virtual private networks to access their schedule, research and online court files.
“Canceling court hearings was simply not an option, so we just got creative with how we were going to convene, and I think we accomplished that,” Cleveland County District Judge Michael Tupper said. “To my surprise, we had relatively few problems with the litigants having access to virtual capabilities. The vast majority of the attorneys and litigants stepped up and worked through the technology.”
The Cleveland County District Court was recognized as honorable mention in the “Biggest Impact” category of the Bluejeans by Verizon Customer Awards, particularly due to Tupper’s use of video conferencing for the county’s Drug Court and Mental Health Court programs.
The courthouse was recognized as one of 10 honorable mentions from a pool of more than 100 submissions worldwide.
“Obviously, it was a great honor,” Tupper said about the award recognition. “It was very humbling to be recognized alongside national organizations in implementing innovative, forward-thinking strategies in overcoming obstacles created by the pandemic and ensuring that the public continues to have access to the courts.”
Tupper said treatment providers in the programs immediately transitioned to telehealth services, which allowed participants to have video access. The focus of the program also shifted from compliance and sanctions to connection and support.
“We didn’t dwell on what was not accomplished. Instead we recognized and celebrated the achievements that were being made each week. We made our expectations very clear to our participants. We simplified things tremendously,” Tupper said. “We took small steps forward each week. I think we gained a lot of trust from our participants as a result.”
Tupper said shutting down the programs was never an option, and celebrations shifted to virtual graduations and phase-ups for those who progressed. Additionally, new participants were encouraged to enter the program and access community-based addiction and mental health resources.
Tupper said the biggest difficulties, particularly initially, were getting comfortable using video conferencing, developing an operational plan for virtual court and conveying that plan to attorneys and the public.
“Many mistakes were made and technology glitches abound. I’ve yet to conduct a perfect virtual hearing,” he said. “But frankly, I’ve yet to conduct a perfect in-person hearing. Mistakes and delays are inevitable, irrespective of whether the hearing is being conducted in-person or virtually. The important thing is to be flexible, accommodating and reasonable with all sides.”
When jury terms resumed in October and January, Balkman said some residents were excused or passed onto future jury terms due to COVID-19. However, most jurors, when asked, said their concerns about serving on a jury during the pandemic were low.
Balkman said the courthouse staff did its best to prevent a massive backlog of cases from building up after public access was limited, mainly through the use of video conferencing technology. However, a backup of felony criminal defendants awaiting jury trials remains.
Balkman believes the technology used last year will continue to be used at the courthouse.
“There will always be legitimate needs to use technology. However, there will always be legitimate needs to have persons appear in person,” he said. “For example, a trier of fact (judge or jury) cannot always completely determine the believability of a witness and evaluate their credibility through a screen. Having them in person is preferred.”
Tupper said, while not ideal, virtual court appearances provide workable solutions to keeping cases moving forward, and though in-person court appearances have resumed, virtual court will continue as needed.
“While many other jurisdictions were closed completely, I complement my fellow judges, our secretaries, court reporters and the court clerk’s office for being willing to use new technology and to employ new procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Balkman said. “I believe the Cleveland County District Court is a model and a light to other courts for how to collaborate and use technology to maintain access to justice even during a pandemic.”