New policy lifts most pandemic-related restrictions in state courts but keeps some remote hearings

The Minnesota Judicial Branch lays out new guidelines for court hearings

Alex Friedrich

Under a new policy, most pandemic-related restrictions in state courts will cease but remote hearings will continue for many cases. The oneCourtMN Hearings Initiative Policy went into effect on June 6.

Has this switch to remote hearings helped or hurt the judicial process?

Rosalyn Park from The Advocates for Human Rights spoke with MPR News host Tom Crann about the benefits and concerns of this change.

Her organization runs WATCH, a court observation program that's been monitoring Hennepin County Courts for more than two decades and recently added court monitoring in Ramsey and Washington counties.

Hear the full conversation by using the audio player above or reading the transcript below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I want to go back to 2020. Tell us what changes did the pandemic bring to the hearings that you were monitoring? It means that most if not all, hearings were were remote, right?

They were. Now, we certainly saw some silver linings and those are the good things that we want to keep going forward.

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Can you give us an example or two where things maybe didn't go as they should or where access wasn't there or where the dynamic is different when you're on Zoom versus in the courtroom?

We observed a case where there was a deaf defendant who was in custody and struggling to see the interpreter signing on Zoom.

Now, as we all know, when there's a lot of people on Zoom, that means there's a lot of very small tiles. But eventually, the court personnel were able to troubleshoot this and work to fix the problem by pinning the language interpreter on the Zoom screen so she was easier for the defendant to see.

Is it clear what the rules are here, especially moving forward when it comes to remote hearings? Are there things that still need to be clarified?

The new policy when it comes to criminal cases — each Judicial District is to develop a plan for their criminal hearings to deal with their own backlog. And this plan must state which criminal hearings are going to be in person and remote. But it must also state the factors when they might switch the in person to the remote around.

When you look at the factors that are laid out in the plan, you can see that there's flexibility and it reflects, I think, the lessons learned over the past couple of years.

Moving forward, what do you think will be important for you to keep an eye on as this policy gets implemented on a more regular basis around the state?

One of the most important things is accessibility. We want to make sure all people can participate fully in whatever type of hearing it is. But the reality is there is a digital divide in Minnesota. So, we need to ensure that people have access to equipment and an internet connection — a reliable internet connection — to be able to participate on an equal basis with others.

I'll give you an example. We were observing a case where a victim came to the hearing online in order to deliver her victim impact statement. But unfortunately, her Wi-Fi connection was so unstable that she was not able to finish delivering that statement.

Now, I will add courts are now providing information on where people can go to use equipment if they don't have that technology. But there's one more important point to make here.

Even when we do provide the access to equipment and Wi-Fi, there is still yet another issue of: does that person have the knowledge to be able to use the technology properly?

I'll share an example of one [case] we observed of a defendant who was present on Zoom for about an hour. But the problem was that he had logged on under a different name. He did not know how to unmute himself and he did not know how to turn on his camera so nobody knew he was there even though he had been there for one hour.

So as we move forward, it's going to take overcoming the barriers of equipment, Wi-Fi connections and that knowledge of how to use them all the while being aware of the intersectional barriers that certain groups of people face when it comes to technology.