Oklahoma Bar Journal

COVID-19 and Omicron Won’t Stop Access to the Courts

By Judge Thad Balkman and Judge Richard Ogden

The recent surge of the omicron variant once again proved how crucial it is for the courts to be ready and flexible to maintain access to justice. Once the daily infection rates exceeded more than 4,000 cases, many judges quickly returned to conducting hearings virtually.

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Oklahoma District Courts leaned into technology to navigate through the global COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning in early March 2020, judges and court administrators began discussions of how we could balance access to justice while safely protecting court personnel, attorneys and litigants against COVID-19. We knew the seriousness of the virus and threat to public health and safety required that public access to the bricks and mortar courthouses be restricted. However, judges also knew that justice delayed is justice denied, and permanently shutting down access to courts would lead to adverse consequences. Regardless of how minor the case may be, judges knew that citizens rely on the court system to timely adjudicate their disputes even during times of a global pandemic.

In the spring of 2021, with the advent of vaccines, most courts resumed conducting live hearings. This continued until early January 2022, when the omicron variant became rampant, and health concerns required a return to the virtual platforms. By the first week of January, we were able to quickly pivot from live to virtual hearings seamlessly. For example, in just four dockets during the week of Jan. 17-21, we conducted a combined 53 hearings virtually with over 58 participants. Dozens of other judges across the state similarly utilized virtual platforms to keep the virtual “doors to the courthouse open” during the omicron surge.

Fortunately, the rules for district courts provided judges broad discretion to use videoconferencing when presiding over cases in all stages of civil or criminal proceedings. These remote court proceedings are conducted very similarly to proceedings that would otherwise take place in a courtroom. The procedures and outcomes have the same binding force and effect as if they were conducted inside a courtroom.

In 2019, well before the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators began drafting legislation to codify the use of videoconferencing in the district courts. And last year, a bipartisan bill was enacted to expand the use of videoconferencing to all court proceedings, including trials.

Prior to the pandemic, most judges had very little experience with conducting courtroom procedures over a videoconferencing platform. Yet once in-person court was no longer a feasible option, judges seamlessly transitioned to using platforms such as Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype and Teams to conduct day-to-day courtroom procedures. In fact, Cleveland County District Judge Michael Tupper successfully used BlueJeans to hold drug court during the early stages of the pandemic. This use of videoconferencing ensured participants were able to complete their treatment plans and achieve sobriety without any gaps or delays in the program. As a result, Cleveland County Drug Court was recognized with an honorable mention in the Biggest Impact category of the BlueJeans by Verizon Customer Awards of 2021.

Turning to videoconferencing during the beginnings of the pandemic and now the omicron surge helped protect the health of court staff, attorneys and litigants during unprecedented times. And along the way, we discovered that in addition to protecting health, there are other benefits to videoconferencing like saving travel time, cutting the costs of litigation for people and businesses and greater flexibility in scheduling.

The onset of the pandemic and the advent of the omicron variant created several challenges across the nation, and the judicial system was far from immune from those challenges. The top priority of Oklahoma judges has been keeping access to the courts open to people who were injured, damaged or for other reasons petitioned the courts for relief without jeopardizing the health of court staff, attorneys and litigants. Turning to videoconferencing was both an economical and efficient tool to carry on the important business before the courts during these unprecedented times. We believe judges and courts in Oklahoma will continue using videoconference technology as needed to ensure all citizens are given timely access to

Oklahoma Bar Journal – OBJ 93 Vol 3 (March 2022)