For many, 2020 has been a strange and difficult year of adjustments — and the same is true for those working and participating in the courts.
Nearly all court proceedings — those without exigent circumstances — were pushed to a digital format. Without access to in-person hearings and jury trials, some cases involving severe charges were placed in a holding pattern.
Attorneys and courts made spaces available in their offices for patrons to appear for virtual hearings, and everyone acclimatized to digital court etiquette and new technological considerations. For 1st District Court Presiding Judge Angela Fonnesbeck, those efforts showed a much-appreciated willingness to meaningfully engage with the court.
“It definitely has been a learning curve, but what I’ve seen in our district is we have had a bar who’s been so supportive of the efforts that the bench is taking,” Fonnesbeck said. “I know there was a lot of angst about it, but people have come together to make it work — which I think is really incredible.”
With the trying year nearly in rear-view, Fonnesbeck said there have been some silver linings to the changes in the courts. For one, according to Fonnesbeck and Utah Court Spokesman Geoff Fattah, court participation appears to be on the rise — especially in the juvenile courts.
“It’s so easy for them to hop on video,” Fattah said. “It seems to be a format that’s a little bit more friendly to the younger crowd.”
“Absolutely,” Fonnesbeck said. “The last thing a 17-year-old wants to do is be seen walking into the courthouse. But sitting at home after school on their phone? No problem.”
For Fonnesbeck, the biggest upside to the changes in the court this year has to do with the concept of “access to justice.” In the past, Fonnesbeck said she’s seen families — those without a personal vehicle and without access to public transportation — struggle to arrive at a physical courthouse. Now, Fonnesbeck explains, people can remotely participate in the courts in various ways.
“This has proven that we can make access to justice a real thing,” Fonnesbeck said. “It means we are having people appear in court who we might otherwise have had a really difficult time getting to appear, and so I think it’s been a real advantage.”
Fonnesbeck said virtual courts will likely continue, especially for civil matters and in juvenile courts.
“I see us doing that for a long time,” Fonnesbeck said.
While the court’s newfound accessibility is superior in some instances, there were hurdles within the specialty courts. Fonnesbeck said there was a two-to-three-month hiatus in the mental health court before meaningful engagement resumed. The specialty courts are now functioning, Fonnesbeck said, but not having weekly contact with their extended support system was difficult for participants.
“That was very hard on our participants,” said Fonnesbeck, who presides over the mental health court. “Anecdotally, I know that’s true with the drug court here as well.”
There is also concern with how jury trials and in-person hearings will move forward in the new year.
“It’s going to be a busy calendar,” Fonnesbeck said. “No question.”
Fonnesbeck said discussions are ongoing about how to manage jury trials while not infringing on other court matters. She said senior judges are being considered to help handle the load, and jury trials are being approved and implemented in other districts, but more concrete decisions have yet to be made.
“We’re pretty anxious here to — after the new year — start getting those jury trials on the calendar,” Fonnesbecks said. “Certainly those who are incarcerated are going to be on the highest priority.”
Fattah said the courts are still maintaining a jury pool for when trials become available. While juror questionnaires are still being sent out, Fattah stressed that potential jurors will not necessarily be pulled for jury duty during the apex of a pandemic.
“We have had people call and use some colorful language with some of our judicial assistants,” Fattah said. “We want to let people know we’re still sending those out so that we can have jurors at the ready.”
Despite trying times for attorneys, court staff, plaintiffs and defendants, Fonnesbeck said she’s appreciative for their help and cooperation. Pros and cons of a virtual courtroom aside, for Fonnesbeck the lack of human interaction is noticed from the bench.
“I’m pretty happy with where we’re at,” Fonnesbeck said. “(However,) I miss people — I miss humans.”