The COVID-19 pandemic continues to deeply impact the U.S. justice system. Courts, attorneys, court staff, and all justice-involved people have drastically altered the way they conduct business due to the pandemic. As courthouses closed and court systems moved to virtual interactions, the court community rallied to respond to the ever-growing demands of justice-involved people, as any slowdown or restrictions on court operations would have significant implications for essential services and urgent matters such as detainees and inmates, victims of violence, parents/guardians with custody issues, and tenants facing evictions. Courts at all levels across the country have implemented strategies to continue providing access to justice.
By identifying Emergency Preparedness and Cybersecurity as one of its Priority Investment Areas , SJI supports projects that look to the future of judicial service delivery by identifying and replicating innovations and alternate means of conducting court business because of the pandemic.
Through a competitive grant process, SJI selected twelve projects that assist state and local courts in their response to, and recovery from, COVID-19, with a look towards the future of court operations. These projects focus on institutionalizing and/or replicating practices that were implemented during the pandemic, ensuring access and fairness, and include a review of costs and benefits, not only to the courts, but also to court users.
Grantees met virtually in March of 2022 to share insights gained from each of the projects described below. Grantee observations were synthesized in the Court Pandemic Response and Recovery Grant Program Roundtable report. Additionally, resources for each project are posted below as they become available.
Convert Court-led Live and In-person Training to On-demand
The Arizona Superior Court in Pima County will transition employee-led, facilitated, in-person classroom courses to on-demand, online, and self-paced training. Starting first with the Court’s Family Center of the Conciliation Court (FCCC), the court will design, launch, evaluate and document the process and program effectiveness for transitioning FCCC’s mandated Parent Education courses from in-person trainings to an on-demand, virtual platform. On-demand, self-paced, court-originated parent education classes will increase enrollment by enabling parents the option to complete coursework as their schedule permits. By embedding on-demand parenting classes under the authority of the Court, judicial officers will have the ability to waive mandated class fees for those facing financial challenges.
How a Court Leadership Evaluates and Institutionalizes the Best Practices Initiated During a Crisis
Out of necessity, the King County, Washington, Superior Court has made many changes to its practices, procedures, and service delivery as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every area of the court, and all judicial officers and court employees, have been affected. Some of the new, innovative practices are likely worthy of continuing in the future (post-pandemic); some may warrant continuing in the future but with refinements; others may not warrant continuing post pandemic but were innovative and served the court and court users well during the crisis; and some may not warrant continuing post-pandemic because they were, or are, not effective. This project will enable court leadership to:
- Develop methodologies and an evaluation framework to systematically choose and evaluate several new, promising practices implemented as a result of the pandemic; and
- Make values-based, data-informed decisions about practices that should be continued (or not continued) post-pandemic
- Crisis or Opportunity? One Court’s Transformation Story
- Evaluation of New Pandemic Practices: Virtual Court Proceedings, Interpreting, & Jury Selection: Findings and Recommendations
Court Voices Project
LaGratta Consulting, LLC, in collaboration with Rulo Strategies, LLC and the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice at the Wayne State University School of Social Work will assist twelve pilot criminal courts by collecting and analyzing court user and court staff feedback to assess the value of pandemic-response practices. Through coordination and lesson-mining of these pilot sites, and the creation of web-based practitioner tools, the project will offer guidance to state courts on how court users and staff have experienced new practices, bringing valuable insights into court leaders’ decision-making process.
The eight pilot courts will engage court users and court staff with a variety of feedback mechanisms, including email, text message, on-site tablet surveys, and virtual focus groups. Specific pandemic response practices will include courtroom practices (in-person or virtual) and non-courtroom interactions between court staff and court users.
To scale these lessons to the national field, project staff will produce three national products:
- A Court Voices Project webpage that will be updated with lessons from the pilot sites throughout the project;
- A web-based toolkit outlining the pandemic response practices assessed and recommended for replication; and
- A national webinar
Evaluation of Two Statewide Virtual Mediation Services Administered through Local Dispute Resolution Centers and E-Learning Faculty Development Model
The Michigan Supreme Court and State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) will evaluate two statewide virtual mediation services administered through local dispute resolution centers; and develop, pilot, and institutionalize an e-Learning Faculty Development Model.
The SCAO/Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR) provides two statewide virtual mediation programs, which are administered through Local Dispute Resolution Centers. The services include: 1) the MI-Resolve online platform; and 2) online Zoom mediation. Both programs manage court referrals of small claims, landlord/tenant (including eviction), and general civil cases, and are administered through a statewide network of 17 Community Dispute Resolution Program (CDRP) centers. The evaluation will empirically demonstrate the effectiveness and national replicability of these two mediation programs.
The project will also enable the Michigan Judicial Institute (MJI) to identify court personnel to serve as volunteer faculty for peer judicial education sessions delivered through virtual platforms. The “train-the-trainer” curriculum will be structured as a virtual workshop, and introduce the core components of active learning using interactive lectures. This will include model learner engagement activities, and teaching workshop participants on how to use virtual conference platform tools to create their own virtual sessions.
- MJI eLearning Faculty Development Workshop
- Evaluation of Two Statewide Virtual Dispute Resolution Services in Michigan
Online Traffic and Misdemeanor Cases Pilot
The Municipal and Traffic Courts of New Orleans will be the demonstration site in Louisiana for the implementation of an online traffic and misdemeanor cases. With the assistance of the Justice Management Institute (JMI), the Court will:
- Develop procedures that address, case initiation, assignment, calendaring and noticing, appointment of attorneys, plea negotiation, hearings, orders, and judgments;
- Conduct a gap analysis and detailed technical specifications to build new tools for online case processing and virtual hearings as modules of the existing case management system; and
- Write locally customized technical specifications for defendant portals and Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) for traffic and misdemeanor cases
Justice Court Access Program
Justice Courts are the “People’s Courts” of Mississippi, handling small claims civil and misdemeanor criminal cases. The goals of the Justice Court Access Program (JCAP) are to establish best practices for Justice Court procedures in emergency situations like a pandemic, provide self-help resources for self-represented litigants in Justice Court, and create a virtual navigator program to assist Justice Court litigants throughout the state. The Mississippi Center for Justice will:
- Assess how Justice Courts transitioned to virtual court through surveys of all 82 Justice Courts in Mississippi;
- Compile the survey results and recommend uniform policies and procedures, along with standardized forms for self-represented litigants;
- Create resources for the court and self-represented litigants, including a training video for judges and court staff and self-help videos for self-represented litigants;
- Develop an online virtual court navigator; and
- Provide court and public awareness for the new resources
Judicial Service Delivery in a Post-pandemic World
The pandemic has created innumerable challenges for the courts, particularly high-volume family and juvenile courts responsible for dependency, delinquency, and domestic violence dockets that serve the most vulnerable in our society. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), in collaboration with a judicial work group started in response to the pandemic, has discovered that while the pandemic has physically closed many courts, innovation and creativity, using virtual and telephone conferencing to hold hearings, kept courts open and created new avenues for access, attendance, and participation.
The NCJCJ will gather detailed information from a sample of family courts to more fully understand how the pandemic changed judicial service delivery to inform future training and technical assistance provided to family and juvenile court judges. The project will determine: how these courts adapted service delivery; implemented the changes; what practices the they plan to keep in post-pandemic court operations and practice; and how they coordinated with the other branches of government to seek funding. The NCJFCJ will:
- Develop a survey to collect information on the impacts of the pandemic on the daily operations of 50-60 family courts from across the nation;
- Select ten sites from this cohort for a more intense review of their practices and data capacity; and
- Develop and disseminate a Lessons for Moving Forward publication to help family and juvenile courts reflect on how the pandemic impacted their operations, and think about how to move forward in a stronger, more efficient, and accessible way once the pandemic is over.
In addition, a nationally broadcast webinar will be presented, along with national educational presentations.
Exponentially Sustainable Case and Evidentiary Adjudication Support for State Court Cases Emanating from the Covid-19 Pandemic
The National Courts and Sciences Institute (NCSI) will develop a 60 hour, on-the-job training curriculum — entirely recorded for all-courts’ later access —to result in the certification of 12 three-judge teams in the evidence-based management of criminal, civil, and equitable proceedings foreseeably emanating this decade from the Covid-19 pandemic. The project’s goal is to prepare science and technology resource judges for 12 State court jurisdictions, with training and adjudication support materials to be shared with all jurisdictions and to evaluate project impacts.
The project will certify one cycle of 36 resource judges to be deployed by their jurisdictions as cases arise. This cycle will be 12 months long, primarily presented online, and culminate in an onsite national conference. Certification assures mastery of application of Covid-19 evidentiary claims to cases and will result in a jurisdiction-congruent desk book to guide judges in gatekeeping the evidentiary proffers in Covid-19 related cases. Certification is conferred by participation in one-hour, bi-weekly online sessions and the development of a question-guided jurisdiction desk book to aid all States’ general jurisdiction judges. Two credits are accorded each online session. 36 credits are accorded to national conference attendance in Charleston, SC. Six credits are accorded to each jurisdictional team’s planning and production of a Bench-ready background document to guide adjudication of Covid-19 related cases.
Thirty-five training case scenarios will include (but not be limited to) personal vaccine injury; false negative Covid-19 tests; failed vaccine agency; business insurance denials; contested mask mandates in close-quarter manufacturing; prison protection failures; nursing home class action; fraudulent health provider services; intentional infection homicide; eviction immunity; medical negligence for off-label treatments; TRO against the State for implied approval of a plasma-based immune-suppressant test; sickle cell crisis as the result of a vaccine clinical trial; mixed Covid and Seasonal Flu multi-party liability; compensation for expert witness utilization of retracted scientific articles; unemployment payment fraud; forced public school opening with trending minimal infection rates; declaratory judgment petitions to admit parents to school athletic events; lawsuits to compel college tuitions refunds; juror seating/ attendance enforcement; breach of employment-based NDA over infection control standards; child abuse brought by the State over use of unusual disease prevention measures; emerging mental illness in a domestic relations dispute as a result of multiple physical losses in the wake of Covid-19.
Eviction Data Analysis and Accessibility
The Eviction Settlement Program (ESP) was created in June 2020 as a partnership between the City of Memphis, Tennessee, Shelby County, the Shelby County General Sessions Court Clerk, Neighborhood Preservations, Inc., Memphis Area Legal Services, the University of Memphis School of Law’s Legal Clinic, among other local partners, to provide settlement funds and pro-bono legal representation to housing insecure tenants during the pandemic. NPI will improve court data management and accessibility to assist the Shelby County Courts, Memphis-area attorneys, litigants, and social service providers in navigating eviction proceedings during and beyond the pandemic. External data collection and analysis will support the courts and its legal partners in implementing and charting the impacts of the ESP. Through data sharing and systems-level analyses, the project will assist court staff, judges, pro-bono attorneys, and housing-insecure tenants in preparing for virtual proceedings, determining CARES Act eligibility of litigants, and examining the replicability of the ESP for post-pandemic court operations. NPI will:
- Develop an easy-access, interactive database that provides hearing information for litigants, and flags for the courts any properties awaiting proceedings that are protected from eviction under the CARES Act;
- Conduct an efficiency study of the current eviction case filing, hearing processes, and court operations in Shelby County; and
- Conduct an evaluation and cost-analysis of the ESP
The database will make it possible to more quickly access information about upcoming cases and triage which tenants need immediate representation. The virtual platform created by this project will be available in perpetuity – a valuable asset for post-pandemic court operations. The evaluation of ESP, as well as the efficiency study of eviction proceedings in Shelby County courts, will provide critical insights on how the courts may proceed with both pro-bono legal representation and eviction court proceedings following the pandemic.
Improving Remote Access: Emergency Petition Email-Filing System Project
The Puerto Rico Office of Courts Administration will improve remote access through remote email-filing and videoconferencing for emergency petitions. Residents with access to a computer, tablet, or a smart phone will be able to:
- Request a restraining order under the Domestic Abuse Prevention Act and the Protection of Victims of Sexual Violence in Puerto Rico Act;
- Request to relocate minors outside of the jurisdiction and other urgent matters regarding family and juvenile affairs; and
- Request involuntary admission orders under the mental health code.
The Judicial Branch will develop case management interface features for the web-based application, including:
- A secure login feature to protect the petitioner’s personal information and index in one file all email linked to the petitioner;
- The record and classification of the petitioner’s information to develop statistical reports;
- A notification function for courts to quickly know a new petition has been filed; and
- Integration of the email-filing system with the Judicial Branch webpage. The project will include the development of three videoclips (Spanish, English and sign-language) and a web tutorial
Ohio Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) Pilot Project
Currently, the Supreme Court of Ohio is piloting an ODR project focused on mediating foreclosure and eviction matters, and is seeking to expand to other case types. This will assist with the backlog of cases that has occurred due to the pandemic, Supreme Court orders and state legislation impacting court cases during the pandemic, and the CARES Act. In addition to evictions and foreclosures, local courts will focus on other case types, including small claims, contracts, and family matters.
This project will support at least four ODR pilots and an evaluation component. The project will include delivery of sustainable, educational products for sustainability, and continued expansion by sharing best practices statewide. Most importantly, additional ODR platforms in more case types will better serve self-represented litigants in resolving their cases remotely.
The Use of Remote Hearings in Texas State Courts: The Impact on Judicial Workload
The Texas state courts have moved quickly to implement the delivery of remote court hearings to ensure ongoing access to the courts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are currently about 1,500 Texas trial courts actively using Zoom to conduct remote hearings. While state court leadership anticipates that the virtual delivery of court services will remain an integral part of court business practices in the years to come, many important yet unanswered questions remain about the impact on judicial workload. The project will involve an analysis of a sample of Texas courts to empirically investigate the implementation of remote hearings on the efficiency of judicial workload practices.
The project will be undertaken in a set of six Texas jurisdictions of varying size (e.g., two larger, two midrange, and two smaller). The Texas Office of Court Administration will conduct a judicial time study to measure the amount of time judges are spending by case type and by case event in the new remote hearing environment.
The six participating jurisdictions will serve as pilot courts to test the methodology and provide the data necessary to build an objective estimate of judicial workload in the environment of remote hearings. Methodologies developed through this project will also assist state courts nationally to determine whether the virtual delivery of court services will remain an integral part of court business practices in the years to come.