Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea was hardly out of place as she took her seat last week inside a Minnesota Judicial Center courtroom for oral arguments.
But for the first time in the court’s 162-year history, Gildea was the only justice there. Attorneys for the state and public defender’s office were absent — all peering instead into computer monitors and taking part in an act that made court history of sorts while providing the latest window into the novel coronavirus and how it is dramatically reshaping daily life.
With almost every facet of business and government shut down in some fashion to try to mitigate the pandemic’s spread, the state Supreme Court took to Webex — a video conferencing tool — to listen to the appeal of a man convicted of criminal sexual conduct.
The case was the only one of this month’s scheduled arguments where all sides agreed to take the court up on its offer to conduct arguments by Webex. All others opted to either rely on previously filed briefs or postpone the arguments for later.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred the Minnesota judicial branch to double down on our commitment to innovation,” Gildea said in a statement after the virtual hearing.
The shift to Webex prompted some subtle, but not insignificant, changes to how the court typically conducts oral arguments. With another justice working from his chambers and the rest working from home, Gildea let both sides begin with five minutes of arguments uninterrupted by questioning. She then let individual judges ask questions by order of seniority.
The proceedings were broadcast live on the court’s website and are archived online alongside videos of in-person arguments that now feel like a relic of the past.
“As we serve the people of Minnesota, we want the people to continue to have access to the court’s proceedings,” Gildea said.
Adam Lozeau, an assistant state public defender who took part in the virtual arguments, came away feeling the hearing went smoothly, despite the unconventional format.
“Given the tech and the uncertainty with it, I think it was certainly appropriate and I think it went well,” Lozeau said. “Both me and the state’s attorney had the full opportunity to present our arguments.”
The shift was just the latest in the way the virus has changed the course of judicial business in Minnesota. Last month, the Eighth Judicial District in the west-central part of the state moved to virtual courtroom technology after a judge was tested for COVID-19.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections also urged the state courts to start holding all hearings for inmates remotely over concerns of spreading the virus throughout the prison system.
Gildea previously ordered that no new state court trials be started or grand juries convened until at least late April, following similar measures taken by the U.S. District Court in Minnesota.