York County judges keep cases moving with Zoom videoconferencing

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

Since COVID-19 forced York County Court into judicial emergency, shutting down many daily functions, its common pleas judges have been able to hold more than 50 proceedings so far using videoconferencing.

And that number is continuing to grow, according to York County President Common Pleas Judge Joseph C. Adams.

"Due process doesn't stop because of a pandemic," he said. "When you have a situation like this you have to be creative. I hadn't even heard of Zoom a month ago."

Videoconferencing over the years has worked fine in York County for informal arraignments of people being charged with crimes or for brief proceedings, such as probation violations.

But in the past, it had not been a viable solution for actual hearings where multiple people are involved, according to Adams.

He said there have always been three major problems — that clients can't speak privately with their attorneys, that sharing exhibits and documents with all participants was problematic, and that court interpreters weren't able to translate for clients who were at a different location.

But Zoom, a cloud-based platform, solved all those issues, he said.

A demonstration: On Monday, Adams invited The York Dispatch to the county judicial center's Courtroom 7005, to watch a Zoom demonstration in which York County Common Pleas Judge Andrea Marceca Strong, York County Bar Association CEO Victoria Connor and two local attorneys, Tom O'Shea and Evan Kline, participated remotely.

President Judge Joe Adams uses a Zoom video platform for a meeting in a courtroom at the York County Judicial Center Monday, April 20, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

Adams demonstrated how Zoom allows him, as presiding judge and the person in charge of the videoconference, to put participants in virtual "breakout rooms" and "waiting rooms."

Putting a client and attorney in a breakout room allows them to speak privately, and putting witnesses or other participants in waiting rooms is no different than telling them to wait outside the courtroom until it's time for their testimony, Adams said.

A participating interpreter can only be heard by the non-English speaker, and also by the judge if she or he chooses, according to Adams.

And documents and exhibits can easily be shown to all participants on the video conference, he said.

Court clerks also attend Zoom video conferences, according to Adams, who said that only a court reporter (stenographer) is actually in the courtroom with the presiding judge.

"It's quite remarkable," he said of Zoom's abilities. "There's a learning curve, just like anything new. ... But for the most part this has been the (service) of choice."

York County President Judge Joseph C. Adams shows, Monday, April 20, 2020, the Zoom video set-up he uses in a courtroom at the York County Judicial Center. Bill Kalina photo

'It's been great': Judge Strong, who heads York County's family court division, said Zoom videoconferencing has been working well for her.

Zoom has been easy to use, so more and more attorneys have warmed up to it, Strong said, adding she's had no issues with not having the normal amount of control a judge commands in her courtroom. She said a set of basic guidelines has been created for those representing themselves.

"I think it's been great," Strong said. "There's still the flavor of a real hearing."

Both she and Adams noted that Zoom is only being used when all parties involved agree to it. Full criminal trials are likely never going to be a good candidate for videoconferencing, they said, but other proceedings are a good match.

The Zoom video platform has replaced live court hearings at the York County Judicial Center Monday, April 20, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

At this point, York's common pleas judges are using Zoom for adoption hearings, child custody and dependency hearings, juvenile matters including placement reviews and some criminal proceedings, Adams said.

He said the criminal division is "where we need to start ramping up" Zoom videoconferences — for probation/parole violations, for example. That way inmates don't have to be transported to the York County Judicial Center from prison.

The cost: Zoom's basic applications are free, but for the bells and whistles needed by York County Court, it costs about $20 a month for each license, Adams said, and at this point the county has purchased 10 licences, meaning Zoom is costing the county about $200 per month.

"This will pay for itself in no time," Adams told The York Dispatch. "I would think it probably already has."

Adams said he has 12 hearings scheduled through Zoom for Tuesday and Wednesday.

York County President Judge Joseph C. Adams uses a Zoom video platform for a meeting in a courtroom at the York County Judicial Center Monday, April 20, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

Since March 17, the York County Bar Association has offered 59 Zoom training sessions and tutorials for more than 1,100 people, according to Connor.

"It's been an opportunity to get everyone on the same page," she said, adding Zoom's technology amounts to "a public-service tool."

York County Bar Association: One of Zoom's greatest benefits is that it allows information to be disseminated in real time, according to Connor.

"I think it's something our members really truly value," she said. The county's bar association comprises about 500 attorneys and about 50 paralegals.

Connor said the bar association is now working on offering Zoom training for attorneys' municipal clients, meaning townships, boroughs and other local governmental bodies.

With courtrooms closed to public hearings, the Zoom video platform has replaced live court hearings at the York County Judicial Center Monday, April 20, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

Attorney Tom O'Shea of CGA Law Firm, who also serves as president of MidPenn Legal Services' board of directors, said he was nervous when first using Zoom but is now comfortable with it.

Attorney Evan Kline of Katherman, Briggs and Greenberg said he's embraced videoconferencing, and advanced technologies in general, and hopes more of his clients will be willing to use Zoom going forward.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.