As Minnesota's COVID-19 restrictions were lifted over the summer months, discussions about retaining some innovations developed out of pandemic limitations began popping up in all sectors of life.
One discussion currently being held is centered on remote court hearings, which, over the course of the pandemic, have made it easier for many defendants, plaintiffs and litigators to have their day in court — sometimes at the cost of decorum and formality.
"I've more than once had to say to someone 'You need to put a shirt on, this court,' 'You need to stop smoking,' 'You need to leave the grocery store,' You need to pull your car over and stop.' I've said all of those things out loud to people in court — that's a new area for me," said Judge Caroline Lennon, Scott County District Court, of remote hearings.
Despite the inconveniences, some court leaders are hoping to extend the use of remote hearings indefinitely.
The Other Side Workgroup was established in March 2020 to assist the Minnesota Judicial Council in leading the judiciary's planning for district court case processing on the “other side” of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The OSW released a list of long-term recommendations earlier this summer, with the Judicial Council expected to act on them sometime soon.
One of the OSW's leading recommendations is that in-custody defendants be able to continue attending hearings remotely; and that contested hearings (where evidence is being presented or testimony is taken on issues in dispute) be held in-person, while uncontested hearings be held remotely.
Clay County Judge Michelle Lawson, who chairs the workgroup, said non-criminal matters that do not involve testimony and are short, routine hearings should continue to be held remotely.
"Criminal cases pose different concerns as it relates to constitutional protections ... because of that it's likely that the use of remote hearings in criminal proceedings, at least initially, would be more limited," Lawson said.
For contested hearings, Lawson said, in-person attendance retains the court's ability to observe a witness and better read their body language.
"To me, one of the most telling things that I observe, is the parties observing each other testifying," Lawson said. "If you have a divorce case or a child protection case or other things like that, it's more than body language and facial expression, it's watching how the other parties watch each other and interact with each other in court. You lose that in a Zoom hearing."
"When you're trying to figure out who's telling the truth and who's not telling the truth, the more information you have beyond the words that they're saying, the better," she added.
In-person contested hearings also pose benefits to lawyers and jurors, according to Deputy Carver County Attorney Peter Ivy.
"Exhibiting is so much more complicated for the attorneys and for cross examination, and for jurors who are watching, credibility determinations are very difficult on Zoom," Ivy said. "You can't have a trial on Zoom as you would in a courtroom. They're not the same and they never will be ... if you're litigating you want to be in the courtroom."
But when it comes to routine hearings, court personnel appear to be strongly supportive of remote hearings. According to an OSW survey conducted last summer, 79% of judges and 86% of court staff believe remote hearing technology should be used after the pandemic. The survey, which fielded 1,115 responses, including feedback from over 160 judges/referees.
Part of the support for remote hearings comes from the ability to remove obstacles for court participants — with time and distance being chief among them.
Transportation, work and child care responsibilities can pile up to make every court appearance a challenge.
"Some folks, depending on where they live, to attend a 10-minute hearing, might have to take half a day or a whole day off of work," Lawson said.
"It's very also very useful for victims who want to attend a hearing or attend a sentencing — they don't really want to appear in court and be in front of the person who may have abused them," Ivy said. "So they can appear remotely and that puts them at great ease."
The past 18 months, however, have been fertile ground for judges, attorneys and court personnel to discover the new and unique challenges remote hearings present.
An early hurdle district courts faced was the digital divide, with some participants being unable to properly use technology or lack access to a computer, smart phone or broadband internet.
Lawson said most counties have created a "Zoom room" to provide a free court connection for those having difficulty with technology or internet access. Lennon confirmed that Scott County has multiple access rooms.
But one of the ongoing concerns is courtroom behavior.
"There's also the difficulty of not being able to read the situation as easily, evaluate people's credibility and control the sequestration of witnesses," Judge Lennon said.
Lennon gave an example of a juvenile criminal hearing, which would usually require the sequestration of witnesses — meaning their testimony would be given without the direct presence, influence or interference of others.
"When somebody is sitting at their dining room table, you don't know who else is in the room or within earshot," she said. "We discovered people were sitting out of the camera's view and we would hear them say something or try to interject ... it's difficult from a courtroom control aspect."
Ivy also raised concerns about the lack of control as he relayed a story about a remote hearing where a participant was vaping and petting their cat.
"There's no bailiff. I can't speak for the judges, but the judges don't have any control and people can act really inappropriate on Zoom," he said. "You don't have the decorum, you don't have the formality, you don't have a bailiff. I think it loses a lot of it's impact. Court should be a formal proceeding, you lose that on Zoom."
The benefits of remote hearings also extend to local sheriff's offices, which are responsible for incarcerating some defendants in jail throughout the legal process.
Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen said remote hearings can alleviate the burden of transporting inmates to other counties, where they face separate charges. But in many cases, Hennen said, it was just easier to delay the hearings altogether.
"Before Zoom hearings, usually that court case would be delayed," he said. "They would wait until they were done with that person in our county jail. It just creates more of a back-up so this is a more seamless way to get them in front of a judge for hearings and keep the backlog down."
Judge Lawson said the remote hearings cut down on arrest warrants, too.
"In criminal cases we've been issuing less warrants because more people have been appearing. That's across the board," Lawson said. "Less warrants mean law enforcement is arresting less people on warrants meaning law enforcement is interacting less with people, which translates to more time for law enforcement to direct at other things, i.e. public safety."
As courts across the state await the judicial council's decision, many aren't holding out hope that remote hearings will be a magical solution for the lingering effects of the pandemic, which has exacerbated court backlogs over the past year.
"In order to overcome the backlog, we need people to come to court, because settling people's cases remotely — in some low-level things it's effective — but in most serious matters it just isn't," Lennon said.
For active proponents like Lawson, who "strongly recommends" the continued use of remote hearings under certain circumstances, the use of new technology has unearthed a path to giving citizens greater, more accessible participation in the justice system.
"Moving forward I think there will always be a place for it," Ivy said. "Like any tool, you want to use it appropriately."
Rolling with the punches
Evelyn Grimm called it a “nice honor” for her and her husband Marvin to be selected as grand marshals for the upcoming Steamboat Days parade in Carver.
Those aware of the couple’s continuous and dedicated service to the local Lions Club and multiple community events say they deserve the recognition.
“The Grimms have been and continue to be pillars of our community,” said Kristy Mock, a city councilor and chair of Steamboat Days. “They have a combined 44 years of service as Lions Club members, and at any moment are willing to lend a hand, help out, organize the gathering, and put in the time to help others.”
Mock said she appreciated the Grimms’ knowledge and welcoming natures when she initially joined the Lions Club.
“With Evelyn’s small stature (5-feet) and quick smile, and Marvin’s stoic nature and towering height (6-foot-3), this dichotomy makes them such a wonderfully memorable couple,” she said. “Knowing them and working side by side with them has been a privilege.”
When Mock notified the couple’s selection as grand marshals, Evelyn recalled: “I thought it was quite an honor. That was very nice of them to choose us. She said it was for all that we had done for the Lions and the community. That’s fine. We’ll be glad to be there.”
The three-day festival presented by the Carver Lions Club runs Sept. 10-12, with the parade at 1 p.m. on Sept. 12. Information about the schedule of festivities, including locations and times of events, can be found at carversteamboatdays.info.
Marvin retired in 1989 as agriculture supervisor at the Green Giant peas and sweet corn plant in Glencoe, and Evelyn is a retired Minneapolis elementary school teacher.
The Grimms, in their mid-80s, have lived in Carver about 23 years and have been members of the Lions Club for 22. Each has served as officers with the club, including each as club president.
Marvin served as Lions Clubs International district governor for 65 clubs in south-central Minnesota for fiscal 2015-16. He’ll is the first to tell you it was a team effort with Evelyn.
“We did all that together,” he said, getting an agreeing nod from Evelyn. “It’s kind of like what the Lions do; work together on projects and things that help the community.”
The couple has been involved with many community and civic endeavors over the years, including, in part: updating The Church by the River, multiple fundraisers, and elections.
“I like volunteering and I like meeting people,” said Marvin, who added that he’s often referred to as ‘Mr. Lion’ around Carver. “I thought joining the Lions was a way to meet people in Carver. Meeting and helping people are important to me.”
When asked how long they plan to continue their community service work and Lions membership, Evelyn said: “We’ll stay Lions. I don’t see us stopping. We may cut back some, but it doesn’t seem like we have yet. I can’t see us leaving the Lions. There are just too many things to do and we like it.”
Marvin is the club’s membership chair. There are currently 54 members.
“We’d like to get younger members involved,” he said. “The number we have right now is pretty good for Carver, but I think we need to keep doing more service projects to let people know what the Lions are doing and giving people opportunities to help out.”
“The message we have is that through the Lions you can meet people in town, have fun and work at events that benefit so many others,” Evelyn said. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in that and you get to learn more about your community.”
When asked what he anticipates it will be like to be in the parade, Marvin responded: “It hasn’t really affected me. I’ve not given it a lot of thought. Well, the only thing is, what am I going to ride in? I really don’t like riding in a convertible, so maybe I’d like the back of a pickup.”
Evelyn smiled at Marvin as he spoke, then added: “We’ll enjoy it, no matter what we’re in. It’s certainly not necessary, but much appreciated. It should be fun.”