Judicial Branch officials are moving to resolve more cases through virtual court proceedings even as three more courthouses are reopening.
Court functions and in-person courthouse activities have been heavily curtailed since the end of the March as state officials tried to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.
The result has been dramatically fewer in-person hearings and proceedings for both criminal and civil cases. But that’s about to change as the Judicial Branch goes virtual by providing more court functions through video conferencing.
“The court has progressed more in the past 10 weeks than in the past 10 years,” said Attorney Monte Frank, the co-chair of the Connecticut Bar Association’s COVID-19 Task Force and chairman of the Judicial Branch subcommittee.
Frank has been in constant contact with Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll III to figure out ways to conduct court business without putting staff, attorneys and the public at risk.
“We’re in favor of making sure the courts provide a safe environment and at the same time do everything we can to provide access to justice and open the courts,” Frank said.
As of Monday, ten of the state’s 37 courthouses remain open for priority one functions only including arraignments of those held overnight, arraignments of those arrested on domestic violence charges, emergency child custody matters, juvenile detention hearings and any other emergency matters.
Three more courthouses, in Middletown, Rockville and Torrington, will open June 8 to also provide priority one functions in those areas of the state.
The courts are open Mondays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Courts are closed on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The closures and restrictions have caused some backlogs, Carroll said, which will be “attacked” by utilizing video conferencing on a greater basis for more types of cases.
The Judicial Branch had an electronic docketing and e-filing system in place prior to the pandemic and also had video conferencing capabilities which were generally used for a limited number of proceedings between the courthouses and the Department of Correction, Carroll said.
“Current public health conditions have greatly accelerated the expanded and more targeted use of these processes,” Carroll said.
Now civil, family, juvenile and criminal proceedings are taking place by video from a variety of locations including Connecticut Valley Hospital, police departments, lawyers’ offices and other places, Carroll said.
Prosecutors are overseeing arraignments by video from their office, which is allowing judges and defendants to safely social distance in a courtroom, according to information posted on the Judicial Branch website.
The state’s chief public defender, Christine Rapillo, is supportive of the transition — even though she believes that having defendants come before a judge is the best way to represent clients.
“It simply became unsafe for our clients, members of the public, and our staff to continue to do that,” Rapillo said. “I am in favor of using video conferencing to conduct court hearings that benefit our accused clients. Judicial is working to expand the technology so that we would be able to start resolving cases for folks who are incarcerated without having to transport large numbers of people to court. That would be a very effective way to get court moving again.”
But she also hopes the use of video conferencing can be curtailed in the future when the public health crisis has passed. “I am concerned that we don’t become too comfortable with remote court proceedings, however,” Rapillo said. “There’s no substitute for a client being able to stand next to their lawyer and receive advice and counsel in real time and certainly no substitute for a judge or jury being able to size up witnesses face to face.”
By working with Rapillo’s office, as of May 16, the Judicial Branch has been able to have release 180 pre-trial detainees through bond modification hearings, another 231 pre-trial detainees by video conference or by papers submitted to court and another 670 have posted bond and been released directly from the DOC, according to Gary Roberge, executive director of the Court Support Services division.
“When the pandemic hit, Judge Carroll made it very clear that we were to look at the people being held,” Roberge said.
The chief administrative judges for civil, family, criminal and juvenile proceedings are working to develop strategies to address pending cases including pre-trial proceedings through the use of video conferencing, Carroll said. He indicated that Individuals who are awaiting sentencing or who are detained for pre-trial proceedings will be the focus of the first remote criminal proceedings.
In the first nine days that the civil courts have used remote proceedings from May 19 to May 29, 921 matters were handled, Carroll said. Hundreds more were also handled in family court, he said.
The Judicial Branch is also working on making “virtual courtrooms” available for legal arguments and short evidentiary hearings, Carroll added.
It will be up to public health officials and the status of the pandemic as to when the courts will resume in-person activities, he said. But employees, the public, attorneys and judges would have to be safe when court reopens, Carroll said.
“This crisis presented the Judicial Branch with the opportunity to develop ways to resolve cases more efficiently via remote technology,” Carroll said. “While it is certainly assisting us throughout the crisis, I believe our expanded use of remote technology will continue well beyond whenever we return to full operations.”