'New era' brings new paths to justice for Delaware County Common Pleas Court
Not until this year did anyone ever participate in a Delaware County Common Pleas Court hearing while using a cellphone and sitting on a front porch.
That detail is just one of the expedients the court's general division has employed to make sure the wheels of justice keep turning during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
From March 16 to May 31, Judges David Gormley and James P. Schuck conducted 673 hearings remotely, almost all using the Zoom app. During the first full week after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine shut down the state's nonessential businesses, the court held 70 hearings.
Gormley said two factors led the court to adapt quickly to the pandemic's circumstances.
"The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio made it clear to all Ohio judges when this problem began that closing down was not an option, that we had to find a way to stay functioning," Gormley said.
Secondly, the common-pleas court already had procedures in place for conducting business via video, he said.
DeWine's lockdown order put the court out of business for only one day, Gormley said.
On March 16, when DeWine announced the first in a series of wide-ranging restrictions, the court staff "just canceled all hearings, contacted the attorneys and we began to figure out what are we going to do going forward," Gormley said.
"Very quickly, our court administrator, Kristen Schultz, started figuring out how we could get a Zoom license and could get that up and running with the equipment that we had," he said. "I think really by that next day, Tuesday, we were able to start doing some of these hearings on Zoom."
The court also quickly advised attorneys how to connect to the court's Zoom account and posted the information on its website, Gormley said.
The court's proceedings have continued uninterrupted since then, he said.
Those sessions have included three jury trials as of June 30: two for Schuck and one for Gormley.
Around June 1, Gormley said, the court posted on its website it would shift to a new phase of "giving everyone the choice whether they wanted to be on Zoom or wanted to come in in person."
Schultz said the courthouse maintenance crew installed plexiglass dividers in the jury boxes, between the judge's benches and the witness stands, and in the court reporter area. Benches in the spectator area were marked to allow for easy, 6-foot distancing.
During some sessions and jury selection, not everyone could be in the same room, Schultz said.
The answer was to spread the groups into different rooms and set up a video conference so everyone could see and hear what's happening, she said.
Those attending court sessions have been given face masks and hand sanitizer, and seats are cleaned after each use, Schultz said.
Virtually all sessions since June 1 have had at least one participant -- such as a defendant or attorney -- taking part via Zoom, the judges said.
Schuck said he conducted a hearing June 29 during which all participants attended in person -- a first for his court since it allowed people to return to the courtroom.
"It was shocking to me," Schuck said. "I was not used to seeing both tables (for the defense and prosecution) occupied and nobody on the screen. I commented on it because I was surprised."
Gormley said the court paid for its Zoom license and there's no charge for others to link to the account via cellphone or desktop or laptop computer.
Schultz said the court began remote proceedings with a video cart already on hand, and the court's domestic division loaned its cart to the general division.
She also said the court has a laptop available in its fifth-floor hallway at the county courthouse, 117 N. Union St., so anyone without a smartphone, laptop or webcam-equipped computer can access the court's Zoom account.
Gormley said those participating remotely in court hearings also adapted quickly.
"There are folks who were not particularly technologically savvy and they figured it out fairly quickly, how to get Zoom and how to ... set up their laptop or their cellphones so that they could do this and became pros really quick. ... The folks I dealt with were terrific about being understanding about the position we were in, and about wanting to keep them safe and the public safe and court staff safe," Gormley said.
The use of Zoom has led to some odd situations, he said.
Among remote participants during court hearings, he said, one woman was sitting on her front porch, one was walking down a sidewalk, one was at work and another was standing in a convenience store.
"You get them where they are," he said. "It's not the most ideal, but you know that's the new era of coronavirus."
Also less than ideal, he said, is when someone sitting at home on their couch is sentenced to prison or jail time.
"Then you have to explain to that person, 'I need you now to report to the county jail.' We set a date, typically at least a few days out from that sentencing date. ... Some, as you might imagine, have not shown up on the agreed-upon date that I've set," Gormley said.
He said the number of civil hearings held by the court -- which includes those focused on lawsuits -- appears to be down since the start of the pandemic.
Civil cases depend greatly on the discovery process, which he said involves exchanging documents and getting depositions, typically in an attorney's office.
The pandemic clearly has affected people's willingness to perform those tasks, Gormley said.
The court can continue to operate on a semi-remote basis until further notice, Gormley said, but that's not his first choice.
When considering a prison term or jail time, "I prefer to have that person in the courtroom, because it can be challenging to get that person into the jail on the date that we planned," he said.
While state law is determined by the Ohio Revised Code and General Assembly, Ohio's rules of criminal procedure are determined by the state Supreme Court, Gormley said.
"There is a way for the defendant to waive their right to be physically present," he said.
From a procedural standpoint, he said, those rules allowed the court to seamlessly adapt to remote hearings.
The same can be said for the Delaware County Sheriff's Office.
"For the past 15 years, we've used a TVA (televised video arraignment) system in the (county) jail for inmates' initial arraignment process with (Delaware) Municipal Court," said jail director Shelley Pfan.
"Since the arrival of COVID-19, we're now doing a similar process with common pleas court, via Zoom, for hearings and arraignments," she said. "The process has been working well and we've discovered it is a much more efficient and safer process, with less round-trip transportation of inmates from the jail to the courtroom."
Gormley and Schuck emphasized it is vital for the public interest that the common pleas court continue operating uninterrupted.
"I think courts, even in normal times, deal with some of the most-pressing issues in any civilized society," Gormley said.
"You're dealing with housing, employment, public health, and certainly the maintenance of order and protecting liberty. And if you don't have a functioning court system -- particularly in stressful times of war or a pandemic like this or other times of unrest -- you're not going to maintain order and you're certainly going to lose liberty. Because you look throughout history in countries where leaders have closed the courts or have interfered with justice, that's where people very quickly can lose the rights that are so valuable in our country."
As the Constitution requires that defendants get their day in court as quickly as possible, the county is obligated to make sure that justice continues, Schuck said.
"Arrests continue to happen throughout the county, and so those folks need to be heard and be seen," she said. "There are certainly situations where folks on the civil side want to come in and get some kind of a restraining order or a protection order. We have to be open to do those things. ... We curtailed some of the things we could and certainly were, I think, liberal in granting continuances when it was appropriate and folks agreed.
"But we just simply don't have the luxury to tell people we'll see them in the fall," Schuck said.