Courts turn to technology to maintain public access

News Photo by Julie Riddle A sign on an Alpena County Courthouse door turns away would-be visitors Thursday.

ALPENA — Courthouse doors around Northeast Michigan are locked, visitors barred because of coronavirus-related restrictions and precautions.

Inside, usually bustling courtrooms still do business, human presence replaced by faces on a screen as courts turn to technology to ensure the openness that is a hallmark of the American justice system.

“Court proceedings should not be secret,” said Judge Aaron Gauthier, of Presque Isle County’s 53rd Circiut Court.

On Thursday, he invited local media to be present at any Circuit Court hearing, via a Zoom conference sign-in.

Over a year ago, the Michigan Supreme Court gave every judge in the state a license for Zoom, a remote conferencing company, with the intent of making courts more accessible.

Slow to be incorporated at first, the platform has suddenly, in the midst of a stay-away health crisis, become invaluable.

A multifaceted virtual courtroom — court recorder, judge, attorneys, and defendant all connecting through teleconference — allows the court to continue. The same technology, Gauthier said, can be used to offer the public their rightful glimpse into the goings-on of the justice system.

Though courtrooms themselves have to be closed, at least for the moment, what happens inside them must remain open to the public, according to Judge Ed Black of Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court.

“Justice behind closed doors doesn’t necessarily give people all the facts and circumstances,” the judge said. “The interest of justice as a whole is impossible if they don’t know what’s going on.”

The public will be allowed access to upcoming 26th Circuit Court hearings through Zoom, although use of the platform will need to be coordinated with the court in advance, Black said.

People-connecting technology in courtrooms, essential in an unprecedented time of social distancing, has long-term potential for increasing access to the justice system, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack told The News.

“That’s been a big, fat, national conversation,” McCormack said Thursday.

Congress is contemplating livestreaming proceedings to make them more accessible, she reported. The Michigan Supreme Court, she added, has livestreamed oral arguments for some time, with video files posted online for later viewing.

As state Supreme Court oral arguments commence in spring, when in-person restrictions will probably still be in place, McCormack hopes to cross technologies, using Zoom to bring remote parties together and, simultaneously, livestreaming court activity to the public.

“It might be kind of clunky,” McCormack said. “But, so what? I think it’s OK for the public to see us struggle through, trying to do what it is we took an oath to do, which is to deliver justice and deliver it transparently.”

The Michigan Supreme Court, helping local courts get quickly up to speed in providing transparency in their courtrooms, is holding webinars to teach the ins and outs of using Zoom, with the hope that the technology being learned today will help courts be open to the public even when the current crisis is past.

“I think there’s a future here,” McCormack said. “We may be racing to it instead of being dragged to it because of this particular health crisis. And that’s the lemonade.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.


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