Summit County Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer remembers watching the movie thriller “Mission Impossible” in the mid-’90s and thinking how nice it would be to communicate with multiple people at once, all in different locations.
Fast forward to 2020 and Stormer and other judges in Summit County and across the country are doing this daily using videoconferencing applications like Zoom for hearings that were formerly held in person.
“It turns out — that was actually a thing,” said Stormer, a longtime judge who is now in Probate Court. “We were behind on the technology aspect — at least in my court.”
Many other courts also lagged in adopting new technology and were forced to do so quickly when the pandemic hit and access to courthouses was severely limited. Now that local court officials have seen the potential, they expect to continue using it even after things return to normal.
“It opened our eyes to uses of technology we hadn’t considered,” said Rick Klinger, the Stow Municipal Court administrator. “It forced us to think about it and come up with solutions. They’ve turned out to be good short-term fixes and — several of them — long-term fixes.”
The new technology has presented some challenges, but court officials say it has also proved to be a way to make the lives of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants much easier.
Many local courts were awarded grants from the Ohio Supreme Court for technology upgrades such as new laptops, wiring, microphones and videoconferencing licenses. Additional updates are still in the works, including in Summit County, where improvements to the remote connection between correctional facilities and courts are being studied.
Before Summit County residents can complete cases in domestic court, they must take a parenting class called Remember the Children.
These classes were offered in person three days a week before the pandemic.
With that option unavailable, the court developed a new approach: a webinar. This gave them the opportunity to update the material in the course, as well as add new video footage, with many people from the court assisting.
“It’s been a good experience,” said Judge Katarina Cook. “A lot of people presented and enjoyed creating something that will be for the benefit of the parents.”
The court will soon debut the webinar, with plans to offer it in person once a month for those who don’t have a computer.
In the Barberton Municipal Court, court officials used a grant to wire a second courtroom to be available for videoconferencing. Before this, only one courtroom had video capabilities. If a judge needed to video conference, he or she had to wait until the court was free.
“We doubled our capacity,” said Judge Todd McKenney.
Summit County Common Pleas Court recently started a pilot program that allows people on probation to check in via a smartphone app. The court is the first in Ohio to use this app.
Amy Corrigall Jones, the court’s administrative judge, said the early reception has been positive, with participants liking the convenience.
“It’s a benefit to individuals who don’t necessarily have the resources others do, such as transportation, employment issues and child care,” she said.
Good and bad
Probate court officials quickly learned about security issues involving videoconferencing when someone shared pornography during a hearing.
After that, Stormer said, court officials made sure they were approving anyone who requested to attend a hearing.
Cook said videoconferencing has worked well for the court, though she sees limitations to when it can or should be used, such as having someone in a disputed case testify.
“You don’t know who’s in the room,” she said. “You don’t know what they have in their lap, who they’re communicating with or what papers they’re looking at.”
Cook said she’d have no problem, though, with a guardian or expert who isn’t affiliated with one side or the other testifying via video. She also thinks it could be a helpful option for a person who is elderly or ill.
Barberton Judge Jill Flagg Lanzinger, who helps out in the autism community, has suggested using videoconferencing for people with autism to make their interaction with the court less traumatic.
“I agree with her,” McKenney said. “We will keep that as an option.”
At the Summit County Juvenile Detention Center, family visits haven’t been permitted during the pandemic, but youths have been given the chance to videoconference with their loved ones.
Juvenile Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio said this has worked out well, especially because the youths can connect with whomever is available, rather than being restricted to only parents or guardians like they are with in-person visits.
“It really opens up the opportunity to have a broader visitation experience,” she said.
Jones said videoconferencing has had the added benefit of providing court staff with an up-close look at defendants’ lives. She said court staff recently asked a specialty court participant to show the contents of his refrigerator.
“You see their lifestyle, who their support system is,” she said. “That’s something I never would have guessed would provide insight.”
Changes still planned
The technology updates in Summit County’s courts aren’t done yet.
Summit County Council recently voted to pay MCM Consulting Group, a Pennsylvania-based company, up to $145,189 to study changes that would improve the connection between local courts and the Summit County Jail and other area correction facilities.
The money for the consultant came from the $94.4 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds that Summit County received. This money also could be used for needed updates that are identified, with the funds required to be spent by the end of the year.
“We want to look at the ability to expand a virtual meeting environment,” said Brian Nelsen, chief of staff for Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro.
Nelsen said this would have the added benefit of decreasing the need to transport prisoners, which would free up deputies and reduce safety concerns.
Akron Municipal Court received a state grant for a new case management system that will replace the court’s outdated, paper-reliant model. The new system is expected to offer options like reminders about court and probation appointments.
Nicole Walker, the court’s presiding/administrative judge, said the court is getting help with developing the new system from the National Center for State Courts. She hopes it will be completed by 2022.
The court also received a grant to install two kiosks where people can print forms and request assistance. She said people who have a court appearance via videoconferencing but don’t have a computer could do so at a kiosk.
The court is looking at partnering with Community Legal Aid, possibly to staff a kiosk at the court or to house one of the kiosks at the agency.
“We’re trying to figure out that piece now,” Walker said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at email@example.com, 330-996-3705 and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.