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 is 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 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.”
Recently released 2020 Census data proves what many residents have known for years — population in the southwest metro is skyrocketing.
This is especially true in Scott and Carver counties, the single-two fastest-growing counties in the state.
And, as populations have increased, the counties have experienced both triumphs and growing pains.
When Suzie Misel first started working for Scott and Carver County’s Community Action Partnership more than 10 years ago, she remembers far more corn fields and fewer Walmarts and Targets. There were apartments (plenty of them) you could rent for less than 700 bucks a month. There wasn’t as much diversity. You didn’t hear much of people experiencing homelessness.
Minnesota Senior Demographer Eric Guthrie said the expansion of the counties is a continuation of a larger pattern he’s noticed across the state. The pattern is a migration from the state’s rural areas towards the more “urban” cities of the state’s suburbs, like Chaska or Shakopee.
About 78% of the state’s population growth over the last decade was in the Twin Cities metro.
But of that growth, Scott and Carver top the cake.
“The first ring in Scott and Carver, closest to the core of the Twin Cities area, those areas have grown the most,” Guthrie said.
Carver County, which sits at 106,922 people, grew by 17.4%. Scott County grew by 16.2% and houses 150,928 residents.
There has also been an increase in diversity to the area. In 2010, Carver County was 88.3% white alone (meaning not Hispanic or Latino). Now, Carver County is 85.5% white alone.
However, diversity in Scott and Carver counties hasn’t quite caught up to the percentage at which diversity in the state as a whole is growing. Minnesota was 83.3% white alone in 2010, and now it’s 76.3% white alone.
That didn’t surprise Minnesota Senior Demographer Eric Guthrie, who said the majority of that growth occurs in the most densely-populated areas of the state, like St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“Proximity to (the cities) is why we’re seeing the increases in diversity to begin with,” Guthrie said.
Scott and Carver County officials have long anticipated the migration towards the suburbs.
A 90-page housing blueprint created by the Scott County Association for Leadership and Efficiency, or SCALE, gives Scott County residents options for safe, stable and affordable homes. The blueprint outlines the organization’s top three goals for the future of Scott County’s housing: the preservation of housing stock, a balanced supply of housing options and accessible community design in residential developments.
Housing is a major issue that arose in the last decade. That’s in part due to the population growth, and in part due to the housing shortage in general right now, Misel said.
Fred Corrigan, co-chair of the Housing Committee for Scott County’s Live, Learn, Earn initiative within SCALE, told the newspaper earlier this summer that housing, specifically for seniors, has become an increasing concern for the area.
In Scott County, for example, 17% of residents are renters, according to the housing blueprint. The average household income of those renters decreased by 1%, while their rent prices increased by 21%.
“There are all kinds of problems that can arise (when populations grow like this),” Guthrie said. “School capacity, access to transportation, housing.”
A growing population means growing needs. Misel, who has spent the past 10 years trying to figure out how to manage those needs, said the community as a whole has stepped up to address rising concerns related to housing, mental health, food insecurity, and other needs.
“The food shelf has provided much fresher foods. Now we’re getting produce, milk, all those kinds of things,” Misel said.
Live, Learn, Earn is working on getting 50% of the people who live in Scott County to also work in the community.
Launch Ministry in Chaska exists to assist young adults in crisis. Esperanza serves kids and families through food drives, summer camps and community resources. Guild provides mental health care and stable housing for people in the community who need it. Many of those organizations did not exist, or did not have the same presence, as they did in 2010.
“We’re better at counting the people who are experiencing homelessness, too,” Misel said. “We’ve come a long way in learning how to serve the homeless population.”
When Misel first started working at the CAP Agency, there were six staff members in the housing department. Now, there are 12.
While Guthrie said he doesn’t have a crystal ball, the work-from-home culture brought on from the pandemic may push even more people to the suburbs in the next decade.
“People might start to realize that the communities offering more amenities are becoming more attractive,” Guthrie said.