COVID-19 has killed about 200,000 Americans since it took our first citizen in early February 2020. It has cost us millions of jobs and thousands of businesses. Before we finally defeat it, and we will, ’Ole 19 will have cost us many trillions of dollars of our personal and public treasure. It is difficult to contemplate there may be anything worthwhile to be gleaned from this world-wide pandemic. However, we humans are a resilient species. We have learned better hygiene from past plagues (Typhoid Mary?), better agriculture from past famines (the Dust Bowl?), and better technology from past wars (too numerous to name). With the corona virus we are rapidly developing better, cheaper and more ecumenical delivery systems of social services, including legal services, in response to social distancing.
As Jeff Bezos rides Amazon into the financial stratosphere we now can get groceries and education without leaving our homes by simply using our thumbs and televisions. While we complain about the pervasiveness of the outside world into our lives we can now consult with our medical providers at lower cost and with greater convenience. We can even have our “day in court” and never go to court. And the courts we no longer have to go to may have changed their attitudes more in this year of 2020 than they changed in the transition from ecclesiastical models to secular ones over the last few hundred years, or, at least, since I began practicing law in 1970 and judging in 1981.
Just as Walmart encouraged southern ladies to eschew high heels when shopping and Rural King and Atwoods relaxed the clothing bar even further for men than their wives thought possible, socially distanced court proceedings have proved that justice need not be pretentious to be administered fairly. A live-streamed video decision that grants a divorce or closes an estate is just as valid and just as readily accepted as a stuffy proceeding presided over by some self-important potentate in the presence of three-piece suits and tasseled loafers.
“Zoom”ed legal proceedings are quickly proving what some in the judiciary have been asserting for years, it is the facts and the law of a case, not the “majesty of the law”, that are the essence of justice. We judges are discovering thanks to COVID-19 what the Wizard of Oz was so rudely apprised: litigants do not need to tug on their forelocks and beseech their “betters” for justice. In an American courtroom even if that courtroom is one’s living room, “Justice is to be administered freely and without purchase, speedily and without delay”.
What we are discovering is that American citizens can save time, money and inconvenience by attending court electronically while sipping coffee and wearing casual clothing and still accept judicial decisions as just. It is the fairness of a judge’s ruling, not the judge’s robe or periwig, that is the woof and weave of our judicial system. If we judges concentrate on the evidence and properly apply the law, we need not waste time and resources enforcing arcane rules designed to stroke our egos. Legal proceedings do need proper structure but two of our most honored judicial precepts should always be followed by judges: (1) De minimis non curat lex (don’t sweat the small stuff), and (2) When the reasons for a rule no longer apply, do not apply the rule. A casual but mutually respectful atmosphere and the ability to ignore behaviors that do not impact a just outcome in court proceedings may be an unanticipated “symptom” of ’Ole 19 and electronic court.
With electronic court the days of waiting for years to get into a court should be over. Every judge, lawyer and litigant has instant access to a court; there is one in his or her hand, home or chamber. And since 95% of all cases are eventually settled without trial why delay justice due to everyone having to use the same brick and mortar building? Socially distanced justice has been forced upon us. Of course we must address the health issues but we need never go back to the Wizard of Oz days. The curtain has been raised and up it should stay.
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