REP LIEU URGES US COURTS TO ADOPT TELECONFERENCING DURING COVID-19 OUTBREAK
WASHINGTON - Today, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D-Los Angeles County) sent a letter to the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts urging him to adopt teleconference or video conference capabilities for federal courts in light of COVID-19.
In the letter, Mr. Lieu writes:
Dear Mr. Duff,
I write to express my strong support for the widespread expansion and adoption of teleconferencing or video conferencing throughout our federal courts during the COVID-19 pandemic and with appropriate conditions. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which provides technological and administrative support to the federal court system, can simultaneously help save lives and improve access to justice for millions of Americans.
As you now, one of the most serious responsibilities of government is to administer justice fairly, something that is particularly difficult when litigants are encouraged to stay home and avoid interacting with others due to a public health crisis. For many criminal, civil and other proceedings, teleconferencing can help ensure parties have continued access to the courts and receive due process. The use of teleconferencing and videoconferencing can be blended based upon the proceeding and the abilities of the courts and the public to connect via existing and available broadband and telephone service.
Official COVID-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) directs individuals to avoid close contact with others. Many state officials have issued shelter-in-place directives to limit movement. Older or immunocompromised individuals are strongly encouraged to stay home entirely. With regard to litigation, parties should not be forced to choose between their health on the one hand and a fair and swift adjudication on the other.
Teleconferencing or video conferencing technology would also prevent the Department of Justice from using this pandemic as an excuse to hold people for an indefinite period of time without a court hearing. This technology allows for court hearings to occur while at the same time complying with CDC and presidential guidelines. We understand that technologies currently are in use that enable criminal defendants to have access to private and public defense counsel (including the ability to engage in confidential communications) while facilitating the fully remote participation of Judges, court staff and prosecuting attorneys.
Dozens of state and federal courts have used teleconferencing and video conferencing for years and have been able to minimize COVID-19 crisis related disruption in their courts. A number of jurisdictions have already adopted teleconferencing or video conferencing in response to the COVID-19 crisis such as has been done in New Mexico’s Supreme Court and Texas. California courts have shown leadership in this area since the 1990's.
I am aware of the memo you sent the federal courts in February urging precautions in preparation for a “potential pandemic.” You also issued updated guidance in March rightfully encouraging courts to adopt telework, teleconferencing and video conferencing where practicable. I applaud you and the Administrative Office for your proactive measures. As you know, however, we are no longer facing a “potential pandemic” but rather – per the World Health Organization designation – a true pandemic.
Current teleconference and video conferencing adoption is commendable but ultimately insufficient given both the scale of the crisis and demand among litigants for efficient adjudication. To the extent possible, now, and more broadly post-crisis, The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should coordinate with the Judicial Conference and remote court appearance industry leaders to develop policies that support the aforementioned goals, call upon courts to expand adoption, increase capacity internally to assist administratively and technologically, and report to Congress on progress made. Of course, such inquiries and assessments should not limit the abilities of our courts to reasonably utilize available solutions, now, where appropriate.
Additionally, any future policies related to teleconferencing or video conferencing should be accompanied by conditions to protect civil liberties. When teleconferencing or video conferencing is used, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts must ensure that all parties have access to the technologies; parties consent to the use of teleconferencing or video conferencing; and procedural protections and due process rights, including access to counsel, are upheld. I encourage the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to consult with civil liberties organizations in crafting these policies.
While I appreciate that input from various constituencies will be necessary, decades of teleconferencing and videoconferencing experience in our state and federal courts indicates that many solutions are available now and can be adapted as policies are refined.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. I look forward to working with your office to ensure that individuals can safely and effectively access the federal court system.
Ted W. Lieu