One year later, what would we have done differently?


pandemic wide

Pictured from left: T.J. BeMent, district court administrator, Superior Courts of Georgia; Deborah Taylor Tate, director, Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts; Judge Toko Serita, acting supreme court justice, New York City Criminal Court, Queens County; and Ret. Judge Kevin Burke, Hennepin County (Minnesota) District Court.

One year later, what would we have done differently?

It’s been a year since the coronavirus epidemic became a pandemic and upended court services like never before. As we approached this infamous anniversary, we asked judges, administrators and other court leaders to look back and answer this question:

If you knew in March 2020 what you know now about the pandemic, what, if anything, would you have done differently?

A longer version of this story can be found here, but here’s some of what they said:

T.J. BeMent, district court administrator, Superior Courts of Georgia: “Had we known how well many court functions could be transitioned to video, we would have adapted and modified our state rules much sooner to keep more than just essential functions moving in the early months.

“And on a personal-business note, I lost both my chief probation officer and a judge to COVID.  In hindsight, I would have pushed even more for following public health guidelines in all of our court locations in the early months regardless if court was the source of their exposure.”

Charles Byers, chief information officer, Kentucky Court of Justice: “…I would have slowed down, been more deliberate, and set my mind to a 24-to-36-month mode vs. a 90-day mode. I assumed this was going to burn out much quicker than it has.

“…As it is, solutions that were thrown together to get us by temporarily until we could reopen are strained by the longer-than-expected shutdown and the mandate that we keep cases moving. As a Band-Aid is not a substitute for stitches, some of what we delivered would be more suited for longer-term use had we known.”

Judge Toko Serita, acting supreme court justice, New York City Criminal Court, Queens County: “…In terms of what I would have done differently based on what I now know, I would have focused on earlier and better coordination among the court and our stakeholders, earlier contact with the defendants in terms of assessing their immediate needs, and better efforts at coordinated care and services for our at-risk and vulnerable populations.”

Ret. Judge Kevin Burke, Hennepin County (Minnesota) District Court: “…What we did very well is protect the health of our staff. We were good at being nimble and protecting litigants and lawyers. We were not as good dealing with incarcerated defendants and may well have made life far more difficult for public defenders whose clients were incarcerated.”

Deborah Taylor Tate, director, Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts: “First, while I was not an ardent supporter of AWS (alternative work space), I am now so very thankful that our division directors pushed me into establishing an official AWS policy and arming all our staff with the ability and technology to work remotely.… I think that if we had known this would be a year, I would have had a different, longer term view. We probably would have made a decision to work remotely for the entire year rather than expending time and energy to plan a return to the workplace, only to reverse that decision.

Gene Valentini, director, Lubbock County (Texas) Office of Dispute Resolution: “…The pandemic changed how people prepare for and negotiate during a mediation.…More emphasis was needed in utilizing different tools to educate users of civil and criminal processes via virtual mediation. In hindsight, this perhaps was our oversight —different tools were needed to resolve disputes.

“Lastly, one of our jurists died from COVID. We parked next to each other for 14 years.

"Had I known he would leave us, I would have told him how much I appreciated him.  Thank you, Judge Ruben Reyes. You are a friend not forgotten.”

Howard Berchtold, trial court administrator, Superior Court of New Jersey, Atlantic and Cape May counties: “…I posed a similar question to our management team.… Everyone agreed that we were far too hesitant to take things as seriously as we should have.  Safety measures should have been put in place immediately and enforced.…Our COOP plans were good but honestly did not account for a full pandemic and not being in public buildings at all.  Internet access, more webcams and headsets, etc. should have been on hand.”

Marty Sullivan, director, Administrative Office of the Courts, Arkansas: “I wish I would have known more about work-life balance before the pandemic started.…Once we realized the full threat of the pandemic, we had to make plans to protect our employees.  We scrambled to purchase more laptops and provided Zoom and Team accounts for everyone within the organization.”

The longer version of this story also includes comments from additional court leaders.