Courts must be prepared for natural disasters and public health emergencies, such as pandemics. 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 pandemics and natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires.
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.
- Broadcast a national webinar along with national educational presentations.
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 up to eight 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 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
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.
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.
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.
How 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
Providing Access to Justice While Protecting Public Health During a Pandemic
The National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) promotes the judicial role of protecting the rights of individuals under the rule of law through strong, committed, diverse judicial leadership; fairness and equality in the courts; and equal access to justice. NAWJ designed and executed a podcast series on ways to provide access to justice while protecting public health during a pandemic. The NAWJ Podcast Series explores how technology is impacting work within the justice and arbitration systems during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rapid Response Team and Post-Pandemic Planning Initiative
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators established a Rapid Response Team (RRT), staffed by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), that created a roadmap to help state courts move forward during the pandemic – and after it ends.
The RRT’s response work was aimed at providing immediate communication, collaboration, and tools for the sudden response to the needs of courts during the COVID-19 pandemic. The six RRT Working Groups (civil; criminal; children, families, and elders; appellate; technology; and communications and funding) have produced over 30 national webinars and over 100 written deliverables, such as checklists, fact sheets, and guidance.
The RRT has now transitioned its focus to implementation work with three areas of focus: refine, develop, and disseminate innovations and best practices; court implementation labs; and sustainable court space utilization recommendations and implementation. All RRT resources are accessible at the Coronavirus and the courts website.
Preparing for a Pandemic: A Three-Branch Summit
In 2019, the Nebraska Judicial Branch partnered with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to bring chief justices and other court leaders, public health officials, legislators, and executive branch officials together to start a collective conversation on how states need to plan and prepare for a pandemic. which often includes quarantines that raise many potential legal issues. Topics for the National Pandemic Summit included legal issues that can emerge from a pandemic, such as quarantines. Small discussion groups were led through exercises designed to explore the problematic aspects of isolation and quarantine law, following presentations by the Center for Disease Control, medical researchers, and legal experts.
Court Continuity of Operations Planning
The development of Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP) is essential to enabling the state courts to continue their operations in the event of natural or man-made disasters, public health emergencies, or attacks on buildings and occupants. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) has produced resources that all courts can use to prepare for, and deal with, emergencies and natural disasters based on lessons-learned and latest best practices. There were four “initiatives” within the project.
The first project initiative was the convening of an Emergency Management Lessons Learned Focus Group to study: (1) what courts experiencing a recent natural disaster had previously put in place in terms of COOP planning and emergency management resources; and (2) how their respective positioning and planning affected their ability to respond to their respective disasters. The goal of the focus group was to provide an opportunity to share experiences and leverage the expertise of key court officials to improve state courts’ performance in the areas of emergency management and continuity of operations planning. The convening culminated in the NCSC Emergency Management Lessons Learned Focus Group Report.
Under the second project initiative, the NCSC provided direct technical assistance to each of the focus group participants, evaluating and providing recommendations to the court’s emergency management programs in the jurisdictions who participated in the focus group.
The third project initiative includes the NCSC Courts Continuity of Operations (COOP) Planning Guide and Template. This Guide reflects current trends in emergency management, technology, as well as all the lessons learned from the first initiative focus group. The fourth initiative of the project is the Courts Continuity Assessment Tool (C-CAT), an interactive self-assessment survey.