Online Thurston District Court 5-26-20

Court clerk Bailey Johnson, left, and Judge Kalo Wilcox run court proceedings streamed through YouTube on a laptop computer in Thurston County District Court in Olympia on Thursday.

by SARA GENTZLER. (5-21-20)
Thurston County District Court is responsible for handling a wide range of issues, from misdemeanor criminal allegations to traffic tickets and protection orders.
They’re the types of cases and procedures that draw large numbers of people to a courtroom. Obviously, under today’s coronavirus-related public health guidance, that presents a challenge.
In mid-March, Thurston County Superior and District courts suspended jury trials and minimized other in-person court appearances. The most recent emergency order from the state Supreme Court suspends jury trials in courts statewide until at least July 6.
For weeks now, local district court officials and staff have been experimenting with new ways to administer justice while maintaining social distance and chipping away at a growing backlog of cases. In mid-April, they began live-streaming hearings.
The first day, YouTube took down the court’s video. The court sent an appeal, and it was reinstated within a day, said District Court Administrator Jennifer Creighton. As it turns out, YouTube made a mistake.
“With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make the wrong call,” a YouTube spokesperson wrote in an email to The Olympian. “When it’s brought to our attention that a video has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it. We also offer uploaders the ability to appeal removals and we will re-review the content.”
It was a blip, court officials say, in an otherwise successful launch of an effort to maintain transparency and public safety. Now, in trying new tactics to address that basic problem — how to meet the district court’s many obligations during a pandemic — Presiding Judge Brett Buckley and Court Administrator Creighton say they’re discovering promising long-term strategies for the court.
“In coming up with solutions to the problems we’re having now, we’re also seeing different ways of doing our business from here forward,” Judge Buckley told The Olympian.
The doors to the courthouse on Lakeridge Drive Southeast in Olympia are locked. Inside, when it’s time for a typical virtual hearing, a judge and a court clerk sit in a physical courtroom. The judge joins a Zoom meeting along with all other participants — lawyers, victims, interpreters, defendants — who join from wherever they are.
People often appear from their homes, cars, or jail, Creighton told The Olympian. In one anti-harassment hearing, a respondent tuned in from Tennessee.
The hearings stream live, with the now-familiar “Brady Bunch” line-up of faces, on one of two YouTube channels: a general channel for the court, and another for mental health and veterans court.
The court has been gradually growing its online presence: It started by streaming change-of-plea hearings. Mental health and veterans court were later added to the calendar, then hearings for protection orders and defendants who are in jail. Now, it’s hearing virtual arraignments and working on virtual small claims court and name changes.
The nature of a virtual proceeding has led the court to introduce some new precautionary measures, Creighton said. People don’t publicly state their addresses or phone numbers, for instance, and the court asks victims to use virtual backgrounds or to make sure their backgrounds don’t hold any clues that might indicate where they are.
In an interview with The Olympian, Judge Kalo Wilcox said one downside of the virtual hearings is the lack of human contact. Creighton also says there’s a learning curve for using the technology — that things are taking a bit longer right now as participants adapt. There are new questions to answer, such as how to securely pass documents to collect signatures in civil cases and how to make accommodations for people who can’t appear remotely.
But, overwhelmingly, court officials laud the new system’s efficiency.
For example, it’s made it easier for someone with a traffic ticket to make it to their hearing. Rather than taking an afternoon off work to wait for their ticket to be called, Creighton said, they can now submit a statement online — or, if they want a hearing, they can do it over Zoom in 15 minutes. In the past, Creighton said, the court would sometimes have to pay for some language interpreters to travel from out-of-town. Now, they can video in.
There’s also an upside to parties not having to meet in person: Often-contentious anti-harassment hearings have lost their edge, Buckley and Creighton say. With people stating their cases virtually, parties aren’t trying to provoke each other.
About 20-30 people will tune in to watch a given court hearing online now, Buckley said — not a huge number, but many more than the few observers who would wander into the courtroom before. His conclusion: This might actually improve public access.
So far, attendance hasn’t been an issue. Most have incentive to do so: They are in jail, resolving cases, or attending therapeutic court.
The court’s just starting to host virtual arraignment hearings, where charges are read aloud and a defendant enters a plea. Whether those hearings will present attendance issues is yet to be seen — but, the first arraignments had just two no-shows out of 12, Creighton said, which she called a “typical” rate.
Thurston’s district court isn’t the only judicial body taking its business online, but officials say it was early in doing so.
The state Supreme Court held its first fully remote oral arguments on April 23, broadcast live by TVW and live-streamed on its website.
A Washington Courts virtual court directory shows the Court of Appeals Division II is also live-streaming virtual hearings, and that courts in at least 15 of Washington’s 39 counties are holding virtual court, including several courts in Pierce County, Grays Harbor Superior Court, and Chehalis and Napavine municipal courts in Lewis County.
Creighton and Buckley say they’ve been asked to present on statewide and nationwide webinars.
Earlier this month, Creighton reported the District Court had a backup of 436 arraignments, 160 of which are scheduled for virtual hearings in the next month or so. There was a backlog of 224 probation violation hearings, and about another 1,500 criminal hearings to reschedule, plus almost 900 infraction hearings, Creighton said.
The court aims to reopen June 15, but it will look entirely different than it did before the shutdown, in part due to public health guidance and in part due to what they’ve learned in the interim.
The courthouse had been crowded for a long time — four judges, three courtrooms. Now, they essentially have a fourth, virtual courtroom at the court’s disposal, Buckley said. That will help with prioritizing cases that have been on hold.
Even when courts reopen, people who have been cited with a traffic ticket and want to contest it will still be able to handle it online, either by a submitted statement or via Zoom, Buckley and Creighton said.
Knowing that social distancing will be key, Judge Buckley said a courtroom that normally holds 40-50 people will likely now hold 8-10, all of whom will be people there to appear in court. Family, observers, and media may be able to tune in to a live stream.
In short, how the court and its staff have adapted to cope with the pandemic may fundamentally change the way things work there.
“I would be shocked if we don’t continue online hearings not just for the life of the virus, but for the life of the court,” Buckley said.

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