All of the Judicial Branch team members have responded exceptionally well to the COVID-19 emergency. The North Dakota Supreme Court expresses its gratitude to everyone in the Juvenile Court, Clerk of Court offices, judges, administrative staff, referees, law clerks, staff attorneys, reporters and recorders for their adjustment to working remotely and meeting the challenges of the emergency. While the team members deserving recognition are countless, the following provides an example of the exceptional work being done within the Judicial Branch.
The onset of COVID-19 related closures in March of this year led to the creation of the Reliable Electronic Means (or REM) Working Group in an effort to find new and effective ways to conduct high-volume remote court proceedings. The Working Group is led by Justice Dan Crothers and is comprised of a volunteer judge from each North Dakota judicial district. District court judge members are Swain Benson, Cherie Clark, Daniel El-Dweek, James Gion, Douglas Mattson, Jason McCarthy, Pamela Nesvig, and Stephannie Stiel. Administrative members are Kimberly Dockter, Robert Liscomb, and John Tassava.
The Working Group was confronted with the reality that typical court proceeding involve litigants, lawyers, court personnel and a judge or justices—who are all in the same room. REM proceedings involve all of these same people connecting to court from individual or multiple locations, often using different technologies (meaning audio only, audio-video, smartphones, tablets, laptops with or without working cameras, and desktop computers with or without working cameras or microphones). Coupled with these variables was the simple fact not all court participants enjoy the same level of technology competence.
The REM Working Group first analyzed current REM proceedings and learned North Dakota courts were using six different electronic platforms and had no standardized way of giving notice of those proceedings or conducting those proceedings. These courts also had the necessary equipment for making a courtroom record of all proceedings, but had limited ability to make that same record when most or all of the participants connected to the courtroom remotely. The Group also immediately addressed concerns that remote court proceedings might adversely affect public access.
Systematically, the REM Working Group ensured each courthouse was aware of public trial requirements and worked with them to provide a way for the public to be able to hear or see all proceedings. The Working Group reviewed the six electronic platforms in use and by agreement focused on supporting one—Zoom. The Group and those working with the Group developed model pretrial orders and developed scripts and procedures to help judges conduct what now is known as ZoomCourt.
Kim Dockter, a member of the Supreme Court’s Education Department has provided unhalting research, experimentation, and teaching that has allowed judges, lawyers and participants to effectively conduct and participate in remote court proceedings. Ms. Dockter was key in making our Supreme Court sessions work, and having much to do with our near-seamless transition in June from GoToMeeting to Zoom. With her help, the Supreme Court was able to conduct every scheduled court session. She did and is doing the same with district courts, by providing large and small group training to judges and clerks across the state.