Pandemic lessons + A virtual adoption

Lessons learned by PIOs during the pandemic

The pandemic has certainly thrown the country (and its courts) into a very different learning environment. Most courts have had to adjust to “the new normal”—working from home, teleconferencing nearly every day, and learning new technology along the way. With every new plan, there’s almost always something to learn. A few court public information officers share the lessons they have learned during the coronavirus crisis.

Kathryn Dolan, chief public information officer for the Indiana Supreme Court and current CCPIO president: “An adage my parents liked to say, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’ resonates with me during this public health crisis. I have colleagues working around the clock to ensure we provide legal, technical, communication, and other support. You’d think most people would be complaining. Instead, I mostly hear words of appreciation, gratitude from those with good health, and tremendous empathy for those in crisis. I’ve learned we are indeed the ones to whom much is given. We have jobs and we have an opportunity to help.”

Darren Toms, PIO for Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Court of Common Pleas and incoming CCPIO president"We have learned that, in a crisis, quick action and communication saves lives. The Court, the Sheriff’s Department (which provides Court security and runs the county jail), the county prosecutor and the county public defender worked to expedite cases of people being held in the over-populated jail. Daily communication and weekend hearings resulted in a nearly 50% population reduction during the crisis, providing the sheriff with the space and manpower to properly isolate and care for the COVID-19 cases we knew were bound to appear. We also put a hold on jury trials to keep large crowds of people from coming our Justice Center even before the state Supreme Court ordered such a move."

Craig Waters, PIO and communications director for the Florida Supreme Court: “In Florida, online is the way to go in a pandemic. Facebook and Twitter have proven indispensable to communicate safely in this crisis, especially for reaching specific communities and groups like lawyers and court support personnel, and our two decades of live-streaming court proceedings have given us a strong base for adding more social distancing into the mix with remote conferencing tools like Zoom.”

Virtual adoption a dream come true for one boy in D.C.

The Washington, D.C. Superior Court didn’t let the pandemic stop a little boy, Dylan, from getting adopted on his birthday. Once Erica Winter, the mother, heard the pandemic was closing the courts, she was nervous the adoption might not happen. She said it was too important - she wanted the adoption to coincide with Dylan’s 7th birthday. That’s where D.C. judges, IT specialists and PIOs came in. Leah Gurowitz, Director of Media & Public Relations, said the mother used Facebook Messenger to follow up about the adoption. A day later, Washington Post reporter Keith L. Alexander told Gurowitz he was looking for positive stories to report. Gurowitz told Alexander about Dylan, and luckily, the mom was willing to have him be part of the conference call. “When I was asked if we had a positive news story during this difficult time, I was thrilled to have this heartwarming story to suggest, especially since Ms. Walker was willing to have the reporter be part of her family’s virtual adoption ceremony,” shared Gurowitz.  “We have a great IT and courtroom technology team who got us all set up with and trained on remote technology incredibly quickly mid-March.  Because of them and Judge Hertzfeld and her staff, this virtual ceremony could take place and a little boy will have a seventh birthday he’ll never forget.”

Helpful #COVIDandtheCourts materials

NCSC has made supporting courts and court employees its mission during this pandemic. Since the COVID crisis began, NCSC has been tracking how courts are responding to the pandemic. Data includes which courts are restricting entrance to courthouses, when the suspension of jury trials ends, what videoconferencing platforms courts are using, and more. NCSC also provides daily #COVIDandtheCourts updates on its Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram pages.

In addition, NCSC has hosted several webinars to give judges and court staff guidance during this turbulent time. This includes the Lights, Cameras, Motion! series, hosted by Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators’ Pandemic Rapid Response Team, which is helping courts quickly adapt to new technologies that, among other things, has supported videoconferencing. NCSC Consultants Danielle Hirsch and Zach Zarnow have produced a series of Tiny Chats, which are bite-sized annotated videos that touch on specific access to justice topics and court operations. NCSC is also compiling "Stories from the Courts," where court leaders share their stories from inside the courts about how they're dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

The votes are in for NCSC's 2020 Civics Education Essay Contest

Chief justices and PIOs from California, New Jersey and Arizona received some good news this week. Students in their state were first-place winners of NCSC's 2020 Civics Education Essay Contest. This year's theme was the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. A record number 1,618 students from 40 states participated in the contest. NCSC received essays from as far away as the Philippines, Germany and North Pole, Alaska. Read the winning essays here.

The winners are:

High school

  • First place: Michelle Tan, a 12th-grader at Arcadia High School, in Arcadia, California
  • Second-place: Markis Cheng, a 12th-grader at Arcadia High School in Arcadia, California
  • Third-place: Ashleigh Rumbaoa, a 12th-grader at Maryknoll School in Waipahu, Hawaii

Middle school: 

  • First place: Reid Spears, an eighth-grader at Tinton Falls Middle School in Tinton Falls, New Jersey
  • Second place: Brooke Eubanks, a sixth-grader from Chickahominy Middle School in Mechanicsville, Virginia
  • Third place: William McDavid, an eighth-grader at West Middle School in Centennial, Colorado

Elementary school: 

  • First place: Aydin Daniel, a fifth-grader at Basis Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Second place: Abby Norris, a third-grader at River City Christian Academy in Decatur, Alabama
  • Third place: Leah Dingal, a fifth-grader at East Milton Elementary in Milton, Florida