Courts adapt to video and audio hearings amid pandemic

Arraignments and sentencing occurring via audio and videoconferences

By Isabella Alves
Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — While the COVID-19 pandemic shuts down most businesses, courts in Wyoming are still open for business. That business just looks different than usual.

During court settings, it isn't uncommon for seats to be filled with people either waiting for their hearing or supporting a family member. But nowadays, instead of a full courtroom, there are usually only two people in it, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports.

The Wyoming Supreme Court issued an order closing the courts to in-person proceedings during the pandemic that is currently set to expire May 30. Laramie County District Court and Circuit Court both adopted the order and are now conducting business through video and audio conferencing.

The Supreme Court has also said it will conduct its May oral arguments by videoconference, and the Wyoming State Bar has said it is postponing its Bar exam and temporarily allowing lawyers with a law degree to practice, among other requirements.

Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell said nobody is coming into his courtroom except him and the court reporter. All four courtrooms in the district court are equipped with technology to hold video and audio hearings.

The criminal stacks – which deal with a variety of issues, ranging from arraignments to sentencing – are still occurring via audio and videoconferences in the courtrooms, Campbell said.

For criminal cases, there are a lot of rules to help protect the rights of criminal defendants. As of right now, there aren't any jury trials occurring, and Campbell said there probably won't be until the summer. He said under the circumstances, he doesn't even know if the courts would be able to get any jurors due to public safety.

Most courthouse staff members are primarily working from home, with the exception of the clerk's office because of their daily responsibilities. In the past 30 days, Campbell said the state court system has used 3,500 hours of videoconferencing and another 4,500 hours of audio.

He said everyone has stepped up during this time, including lawyers and clerks, to make sure the court's vital work is still getting done.

"You know, we're not like other offices. People can choose to come and go from the assessor or the treasurer as they need to, of course," Campbell said. "Well, a court proceeding, sorry to say it this way, you don't have a choice."

Campbell said he anticipates courts are going to be one of the last things that opens up in the summer, or whenever it happens.

With civil cases, the Supreme Court indicated in its order what type of proceedings could be considered emergent for in-person settings, such as emergency child custody orders.

But Campbell said the local district court has made no exceptions so far, and is using audio or videoconferencing to do those proceedings, as well.

"So really what we found was we don't need the allowance and haven't used any allowance for personal exceptions for personal appearance," Campbell said. "We just worked it all out by video and audio." With trials being put off, Campbell said he anticipates being pretty busy later in the year. Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial, which must occur within 180 days.

Some defendants can choose to waive their speedy trial deadline, which allows the court to schedule a trial outside of the 180-day time limit. If they don't waive their right, Campbell said, he can tell them due to the pandemic it isn't safe to hold a trial right now.

The defendant then has a chance to object and hold a hearing about why they think they need to have a trial at this time, and the state can offer its response, as well.

As far as the future goes, Campbell said he can't predict what long-term effects this pandemic will have on the judiciary, but he said he thinks attorneys in the future might ask for more videoconferences for very brief proceedings.