Two years after the pandemic, what are we doing differently?

Two years after the pandemic, what are we doing differently?

covid globe

A year ago, we asked court leaders what they would have done differently if they knew the coronavirus pandemic would become a historic disrupter.

As the second anniversary of the pandemic approaches, we asked some of the same people what their courts are doing now that they never imagined they would have done two years ago.

They said allowing many employees to work remotely has been a silver lining, especially in rural states where it can be more difficult to find employees for IT and other hard-to-fill jobs. Others said they never would have imagined how courts -- and court employees -- would become as technologically proficient as they are now. Yet others said they are pleasantly surprised that two years into the pandemic courts have become more user friendly.

NCSC is also taking inventory of how the pandemic has changed its support of state courts. Recent updates to show a transition into adoption of pandemic-era practices. And two years of weekly Pandemic Rapid Response Team (RRT) meetings have demonstrated the commitment of national court leadership working toward a common goal.

“If you would have told me two years ago that we would be regularly putting together national webinars where thousands of people would tune in live, and we would plan it all from start to finish in less than a week, I would have said that’s not possible,” said Nora Sydow, the NCSC consultant who serves as a liaison to the RRT. “One of the many silver linings in all of this is our new ‘anything-is-possible’ attitude.”

Here are some of the court leaders' responses, in their own words:

Marty Sullivan, director, Administrative Office of the Courts, Arkansas:

“I feel the last two years have taught us a great deal about ourselves as individuals and the resiliency of our organizations. Three years ago, I never would have imagined our court system would have so completely embraced technology. The Arkansas Supreme Court adapted quickly and was one of the first in the nation to conduct an oral argument online. The innovation and willingness to pivot is inspiring. …Allowing our employees to work from home gave them an opportunity to rise to the challenge, and for the most part, the experiment was successful. The new challenges of technology reliance exacerbated an already growing concern -- cybersecurity. Fortunately, this led to additional innovation, including cloud migration, the use of VPN, and two-factor authentication. These things, just a few years ago, were just a sci-fi dream.”

Tonnya Kohn, state court administrator, South Carolina:

“I’m amazed at how quickly we were able to stand up and embrace technology that was new to us. We set aside a few old conventions virtually overnight. After COVID hit, we were challenged to keep the courts open. Access to courthouses was limited and court hearings were still one of the few activities that compelled attendance. But practically overnight, judges and courts embraced video conferencing as a way to keep the courts open and give people their day in court. Remote hearings aren’t appropriate in every case, but it’s another way to access the courts that we’ll continue to use.”

Charles Byers, chief information officer, Kentucky Court of Justice:

“Coming from the private sector and being old enough to have experienced the pitfalls of remote and offshore development, we always insisted that work be done in-house. Trying to attract and retain technical talent in the middle of Kentucky was always challenging, but we managed. In response to the pandemic, we shifted to allowing our development staff to work fully remote. The results were impressive. And now, two years later, we are finding ourselves allowing development teams to continue in a fully remote arrangement. It is allowing us to exceed our office capacity and expand our recruitment geography. Will it continue forever? It’s hard to say. But I would never have imagined us considering this two years ago.”

T.J. BeMent, district court administrator, 10th Judicial District of Georgia:

“Prior to the pandemic, large calendars, where dozens and dozens of cases were scheduled at the same time, were the norm.  For the past two years, those calendars have been broken into smaller blocks of time with fewer cases to ease crowding and promote safe distancing.  While certainly less efficient for our courts, the shifting of focus back on to the case at-hand has allowed our judges to connect with the litigants more fully.  Most court hearings have begun with the judges asking if everyone is well and how their families are doing.  That human connection is important.  So, as we ease back to large calendars, there is the lesson to be remembered about the purposes of our courts -- doing individual justice in individual cases, but with compassion.”

Gene Valentini, director, Lubbock County (Texas) Office of Dispute Resolution:

“If someone would have told me two years ago that 90 to 95 percent of our mediations would be virtual, I wouldn’t have believed them.  Pre-COVID mediation percentages were just the opposite. If the majority of attorneys and litigants prefer virtual mediations, we need to accept this cultural change.”

Seeking nominations for Mary McQueen Award

We’re accepting nominations for the Mary C. McQueen Award for Excellence and Leadership in Justice System Improvement, which recognizes an individual who has made extraordinary contributions to improving the administration of justice at the local, state or national levels.

Mary McQueen has served as NCSC president since 2004 and throughout her career has been an advocate for court and judicial reform. The award, created by the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators, the National Association for Court Management, and the National Association for Presiding Judges and Court Executive Officers, has been presented every even-numbered year since 2016.

Send a nomination letter and supporting documents no later than June 10 to Nikiesha Cosby by email or to her at 300 Newport Ave., Williamsburg, VA 23185.