SALEM — Even as the state’s Trial Court begins easing restrictions on the number of people who can be present in a courthouse later this month, some of the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic will stay in place — changes that some officials believe make the courts run more efficiently and provide greater access.
“It gives you a lot of options,” said Judge Robert Brennan, who is the presiding justice at Salem District Court and oversees the region’s courthouses.
In the early days of the pandemic, judges like Brennan scrambled to reschedule the dozens — and in a few courthouses, hundreds — of cases that typically are heard each day, ranging from traffic ticket appeals and small claims to robberies and murders.
In one of the oldest continuously-operating court systems in the world, technology had made its way into courtrooms at a glacial pace.
The pandemic changed that, with state court officials quickly allowing courts to start conducting business on teleconferencing lines and then the videoconference platform Zoom.
“It is one of the positive results of having to adjust to the pandemic and limitations on capacity,” Brennan said in an interview.
Starting this Monday, July 12, the state Trial Court will lift the capacity limits on courtrooms and eliminate social distancing requirements, though masks — over both the mouth and nose — will still be required unless a person is speaking. The limits on where jury trials can be held are also being lifted, though the effect of that may not be seen until the fall.
Some other recent measures that were put in place are likely to remain, however, at least in some form, as courts continue to resolve the backlog created by the pandemic.
Among them are “trial readiness” conferences, where lawyers and a judge meet, usually virtually, to discuss the status of a case and whether or not it’s likely that if scheduled, it would actually be able to be tried.
Issues such as availability or willingness of witnesses to testify come up. And so do discussions of resolving the case in other ways, such as through a plea or continuation without a finding, said the judge.
Another is scheduling cases for a non-binding “jury waived” trial, as long as both the prosecution and defense agree.
Brennan said the idea is to allow the parties to summons witnesses without giving up one of the limited jury trial sessions. If the witnesses show up, the case is tried. But if they don’t come —- and if prosecutors cannot locate them through other means, the case can either be rescheduled or dropped.
Brennan said he believes the court is on pace to eliminate the pandemic backlog by the end of the summer.
“Generally we are pleased with the process to address the backlog,” said Carrie Kimball, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.
Defense lawyer Thomas Gately said he sees technology making things more efficient and weeding out cases that cannot be tried. And he does like the idea of being able to discuss a case with a prosecutor and a judge, though he’d also like to make sure there is a role for the defendant in that process.
The virtual court sessions also save him time.
“It was awful to have to drive an hour to a court for a probable cause hearing that’s not going to happen,” said Gately.
‘Not so essential’
Some attorneys have been concerned for years about the use of videoconferencing to replace in-person appearances during substantive court proceedings, saying it’s difficult or impossible for them to have meaningful interactions with clients via a teleconference or phone line.
Gately said one problem that has come up is that he’s never actually seen some of his clients without a mask. “Sometimes we can’t recognize each other,” he said. “The judge will ask, ‘is your client here?’ and I have to say ‘I don’t know.'”
But some also say that for the numerous routine pre-trial hearings in a case, proceedings where attorneys discuss scheduling or tell the judge they’re still awaiting results from the state crime lab, for example, it makes little sense to either put someone on a jail van to the courthouse or make someone sit in a courtroom for several hours until their case is called.
“The thinking has been that you need to have the parties show up for every date,” Brennan said. “What we’ve learned from the pandemic is maybe that’s not so essential,” as long as defendants are present for any significant proceedings, such as motions, and of course, their trial.
Often, defendants had been required to take a day off of work or arrange day care for a court appearance that might last just 30 seconds, said the judge.
For defense lawyers with a busy calendar spread across multiple courts, the technology also allows them to be “in” multiple places at the same time.
On any given day now, there are lawyers in conference rooms or corridors just outside the courtroom, appearing via Zoom at another court.
Judges have also been able to preside over cases from a different courthouse, making scheduling of lengthy hearings or cases where a judge is specially assigned easier.
Brennan, for his part, is such a fan of the new technology that he’s having a video screen permanently mounted in the main courtroom in Salem District Court.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.