View From the Bench: This Virtual World: Post-Pandemic Courts

By Chief Justice Kristina Pickering and Judge Tierra Jones

Necessity is the mother of invention. No truer example of this adage exists than the transformation Nevada’s courts underwent in the second and third week of March. On March 12, 2020, Governor Steve Sisolak issued a Declaration of Emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The next day, March 13, 2020, the President of the United States declared a nationwide emergency pursuant to Section 501(6) of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 5121-5207. To mitigate the spread of the deadly virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention immediately recommended putting as much distance between people as possible, and Governor Sisolak directed Nevadans to stay home except to seek or provide essential services. This threat and these measures fundamentally conflicted with the normal operations of Nevada’s courts, where jurors assemble, witnesses and parties appear, and lawyers come to court to plead their client’s cause. Yet, virtually overnight, Nevada’s courts shifted from in-person to virtual proceedings for all but the most essential of proceedings.

For the appellate courts, the shift from in-person to virtual was relatively straightforward. Lawyers and law firms were already e-filing and the court’s website provided access through the public portal to publicly filed documents; a simple adjustment now affords access to appendices that used to mean a trip to the courthouse for a non-party to review. The appellate courts’ main face-to-face encounters are oral arguments and public hearings, which they already were webcasting. Since the Governor’s directive, the appellate courts have been conducting oral arguments and public hearings virtually, using Blue Jeans, rather than in-person. Apart from April’s oral argument calendars, which were rescheduled, the appellate courts’ oral argument schedule has remained steady. The buildings are open for essential court business but not for tours or other non-essential purposes.

In the Eighth Judicial District Court, significant changes have been made. First, the Court has launched a completely paper-less system for processing all court orders and documents. The Clerk’s Office remains closed to in-person filing. All court documents can be emailed, for signature, to the individual district court department. Each individual department will electronically review the documents and process them, if they are accurate and ready for filing. After that, the documents are signed and filed in Odyssey, by the court. This process also allows for e-service of all registered individuals for each case.

Like the appellate courts, the Eighth Judicial District Court uses Blue Jeans. This option allows all parties to appear remotely via cell phone or computer. However, all parties are required to appear using video and audio technology. Remote appearances can be made for criminal and civil cases.

Also, the court has resumed settlement conferences for civil, criminal, and family court cases. The criminal settlement conferences are being conducted in the Lower Level Arraignment Court of the Regional Justice Center. Most of the civil and family court settlement conferences are being conducted remotely over Blue Jeans.

The district court has resumed hearing both essential and non-essential case types. In the criminal division, the court is hearing criminal, arraignment, and specialty court calendars. Absent extraordinary circumstances, in-custody criminal defendants appear via video from the detention facility. For witnesses and attorneys, remote appearances are encouraged, but most departments are also allowing in-person appearances for court hearings. The grand jury has also resumed.

The civil division of the court is conducting pre-trial hearings and Rule 16 conferences daily. Most appearances are encouraged via Blue Jeans, but some departments also allow in-person appearances. ADR matters are proceeding remotely when possible.

The family division has begun having hearings in all types of cases in guardianship, dependency and delinquency. The family division is hearing bench trials in domestic cases as well. The Family Law Self-Help Center is open and providing in-person services. The court is strongly encouraging appearances via alternative means, whenever possible.

The criminal and civil divisions are attempting to begin hearing jury trials. To ensure that all safety precautions are taken, the court has partnered with University Medical Center, Southern Nevada Health District, and the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services to create a courtroom with COVID-19 safety protocols. This courtroom has adequate social distancing in place between the jury, the court staff, and counsel. There are plexi-glass coverings that separate all persons, including the court staff, judge, witnesses, and attorneys from their clients. The court’s first priority is the in-custody criminal defendants who have invoked their right to a speedy trial. The court is also intending to begin conducting civil jury trials at the Las Vegas Convention Center, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. The court has continued to hear bench trials in criminal and civil cases, under COVID-19 safety protocols, during the pandemic.

For any further information please contact each department directly or visit our website at http://www.clarkcountycourts.us/.

About

This article was originally published in the “Local Courts” issue of Communiqué, the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association, (October 2020). See https://clarkcountybar.org/about/member-benefits/communique-2020/communique-october-2020/.

© 2020 Clark County Bar Association (CCBA). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any portion of this issue is allowed without written permission from the publisher. Editorial policy available upon request.

About the authors:
Supreme Court of Nevada Chief Justice Kristina Pickering

Chief Justice Kristina Pickering has been a member of the Nevada Supreme Court since 2009. She is an elected member of the American Law Institute and currently co-chairs the Nevada Access to Justice Commission.

Eighth Judicial District Court Judge Tierra Jones

Judge Tierra Jones serves in Department 10 of the Eighth Judicial District Court. In 2017, Governor Sandoval appointed Tierra to the District Court Bench. Tierra became the first African American woman to serve on the District Court in the State of Nevada. Judge Tierra Jones serves as the Homicide Team Case Management Judge.

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