Chief Justice Lorie Gildea speaks during the MSBA’s annual conference Thursday, where she delivered her annual State of the Judiciary speech. (Image courtesy Minnesota State Bar Association)
Chief Justice: In August, Supreme Court will hold first in-person hearing since April 2020
In August, the Minnesota Supreme Court will hold its first in-person hearing since April 2020, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea announced Thursday. The court will resume its normal in-person hearing routine in September, she said.
Speaking to the Minnesota State Bar Association’s annual conference, Gildea also shared news that, during the new Minnesota Court Records Online (MCRO) system’s third and final development phase next year, the Judicial Branch’s new remote document retrieval system will introduce an access fee.
In 2022, she said, MCRO will stop serving up records free of charge. Instead, just the first page retrieved will be free; full documents will cost $8 each, Gildea said. That fee is statutorily imposed and the money will go to the state’s general fund, she said.
When MCRO Phase III is over, it will be capable of processing name queries as well as judgment and court calendar searches, the chief justice said. After long delays, the first iteration of MCRO was launched on March 17.
“After years of coming before the MSBA and telling you that online access to District Court documents was coming in the future, no one in the state was happier to see the first phase of this project finally come to fruition than me,” she said.
The chief justice also told the bar that the Supreme Court has approved a 3.1% lawyer’s fee increase to fund the state’s Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers program and a 3% fee increase to support the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility’s work.
“It’s been a long time since these fees have been raised and I hope that you’ll view these modest increases as worthwhile investments in lawyer well-being and professional responsibilities,” Gildea said.
Those were a few pieces of news that the chief shared during her annual State of the Judiciary speech to the state bar convention. But most of her address dwelled on lessons learned during the tumultuous pandemic year.
The state of the judiciary, Gildea said, is strong—despite one of the most daunting years Minnesota’s court system has ever faced. Courthouses went into near lockdown after the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet they kept functioning, largely through remote technologies.
“Working together,” Gildea told the bar, “we have ensured that Minnesotans have always had a safe place to protect their rights and resolve their disputes. And we have fulfilled our constitutional mission each and every day of this pandemic.”
Her half-hour speech did not mention the growing case backlog sparked by the pandemic, which continues to mount despite the efforts of judges and courthouse staff said to be laboring past the point of exhaustion. Nor did she discuss the indecision of lawmakers who have yet to pass a judiciary and public safety budget.
But she did say that the state’s justice system is prepared to emerge from the pandemic “more unified than ever.”
A large part of Gildea’s speech dwelled on technology. About 80% of court hearings statewide have been held online since the pandemic’s arrival, she said. In 2021, that number is 93%, she said. Appellate courts, including the Supreme Court, have been fully online since April 2020.
Despite the occasional hiccup and technological gremlin, Gildea said remote court proceedings have worked remarkably well. So well, in fact, that a Judicial Council subcommittee of judges and court administrators—the Other Side Work Group—will offer recommendations next month for keeping some of those technologies in place post-pandemic, the chief justice said.
“Not only have these technologies allowed us to hear cases safely and effectively throughout the pandemic,” Gildea said, “but we have also seen our court users and stakeholders embrace the convenience and efficiency of online hearings.”
Pandemic-era Judicial Branch surveys of court participants have uncovered two key lessons, she said:
- There is widespread belief that conducting court hearings online “serves to increase access to justice.”
- There is “strong support” for the idea that at least some proceedings should continue being conducted remotely. “This is especially true when we asked about uncontested hearings—those where there’s no evidence presented or testimony taken,” Gildea said.
Lawyers appreciate how remote technologies reduce their travel time and costs, she said, and their clients like how much easier it is to attend remote hearings without disrupting their lives.
Law enforcement likes remote technology because it reduces the frequency and risks of transporting jailed defendants to and from court. And advocate groups report that victims feel remote hearings are both safer and more empowering, Gildea said.
“Now, nobody is suggesting that we’ll continue to conduct 90% of our hearings online,” she said. “We’re already beginning the process of gradually increasing in-person hearings and trials across the state. Our goal needs to be to find the right balance.”
Cameras in court
Gildea offered another bit of news on the issue of cameras in the courtroom, though the Supreme Court actually issued an order on the topic a week ago.
On June 18, her court ordered its Advisory Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure to reconsider whether court rules should change, or expand, requirements for audio and video coverage of District Court criminal proceedings.
Rule 4.02(d)-(e) of the General Rules of Practice for the District Courts permits video and audio court coverage only with unanimous consent of the parties. Even that is generally limited to before a verdict or plea, or at the post-plea or post-verdict stage. The rule has been in place five years, based on the results of a 2015-2017 pilot project.
Minnesota’s appellate courts have live-streamed oral arguments for years. But District Court judges have been extremely cautious about allowing cameras and microphones into their courtrooms, the chief justice said.
Yet the pandemic experience has taught the judiciary a lot about audiovisual technologies’ value, she said. The Derek Chauvin trial, for example, allowed gavel-to-gavel coverage of a criminal trial for the first time in state history and an estimated 23 million people viewed at least part of the proceedings.
“While the decision to allow camera coverage of this trial was based on the unprecedented public health restrictions in place during the pandemic,” Gildea said, “it would be a mistake for us not to reflect on the lessons learned and experiences gained through this process.”
She didn’t tilt her hand during her speech, but seemed to at least hint which direction she hopes the advisory committee will move when it releases its recommendations on July 1, 2022.
“Public interest in and access to judicial proceedings is vital to the fair, open and impartial administration of justice,” she said. “I hope the bar and our entire justice community will be active in these discussions and we’ll keep an open mind, as we once again explore this important issue.”
In a written public statement accompanying last week’s Supreme Court order, the chief justice was somewhat more direct.
“The time is right to consider whether the current requirements for audio and video coverage of criminal proceedings in courtrooms should be amended to accommodate broader public access,” that statement says.
The chief justice touched on a few other issues as well on Thursday.
She discussed the Supreme Court’s ongoing paraprofessional pilot project. She talked about new tools that can help educate jurors about implicit or unconscious bias. And she promoted a new joint venture of the MSBA, the courts and civil legal aid organizations—Lawyers Step Up for Minnesota. It aims to boost pro bono activity among lawyers.
Her full speech, including her elaboration on those three topics, can be read here.
In closing, Gildea said the last 16 months have taught Minnesotans an important lesson about the resilience of its justice system in the face of crisis. “We kept the door to justice open in Minnesota and our commitment to providing equal access to justice has never faltered,” she said.
“I am confident that we will emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever,” Gildea said, “armed with a year and a half of important lessons that will help us build a better future for the justice system in Minnesota.”
The MSBA conference wraps up today.