Over the past four months, lots of systems in Wisconsin have had to adapt due to the coronavirus pandemic. That includes the state court system, which was forced to halt jury trials and move most other business online.
Before the shutdown, lots of people had never heard of Zoom. Now, the video conferencing platform has become a part of our daily lives — including for some court hearings. They’re being held as Zoom meetings, which are broadcast live on YouTube.
That change had one of our Bubbler Talk listeners wondering about privacy concerns, especially in the case of minors. First District Chief Judge Mary Triggiano says the online hearings have helped juvenile courts operate in Milwaukee – allowing for a huge cut in foot traffic.
“The courthouse here in Vel Phillips usually has about 4,500 people coming into both buildings each day. That has been significantly reduced given the fact that we’re still doing Zoom hearings and that we had people go home during the beginning phases of this pandemic,” Triggiano says.
Triggiano says that while it’s essential that these Zoom hearings be streamed live on YouTube because public access to the court system is paramount, she says precautions are being taken when it comes to children and other sensitive matters.
“So, the judges in children’s court aren’t livestreaming cases that would otherwise be confidential,” Triggiano says.
She says domestic abuse injunction hearings also are not being livestreamed. But what about other cases in adult criminal courts, which are typically open to the public?
Allison Ritter, a criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee, says, “I don’t think there would be any privacy concerns unless you’re talking about a hearing that involved the testimony of a child, maybe in a child abuse case or something like that. Now those types of cases are still open to the public so unless there’s a court order, you know like sequestering the court for a certain proceeding, then I think that they are going to be streamed."
Ritter says that while the system that’s been developed to keep the legal process moving is important, she says it’s not perfect. In fact, she says most evidentiary hearings where people, including kids, could be called upon to testify are not happening due to the logistics of it all. She says it’s difficult to show exhibits and cross-examine a witness online.
“At this point, we haven’t even gotten to do evidentiary hearings. So that’s kind of down the road and hopefully, when those kind of hearings start up, they’ll be in person again so that they can have an advocate there for the child if it’s a child witness, for example. I don’t know. It’s definitely not a perfect solution,” Ritter says.
She says moving hearings onto Zoom and YouTube has brought up one more noteworthy difference. It used to be that people interested in a case would be family, friends and people from that area, and now, it could be anyone in the world.
“I mean it could be somebody coming in from Bangladesh. We have no idea. Zoom is out there. And you know there’s a whole community now of court watchers that know each other on Zoom,” Ritter says.