In sparsely populated districts, TV hearings save money

Judge Gerald Seibel sits in his courtroom
Judge Gerald Seibel sits in his courtroom in Morris, in Minnesota's 8th Judicial District, one of the state's most rural. He routinely conducts hearings in other counties via television. He said remote hearings can lead to quicker hearings for defendants and ease the travel burden on witnesses and county sheriffs. "We have to be understanding of people's time," Seibel said.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Vogel

Judge Gerald Seibel sits on the bench in his Stevens County courtroom holding in his hand, not a gavel, but a remote control. He's trying to make a camera 45 miles away zoom out so he can see on his TV all three people at a table in a courtroom in Ortonville.

The three offer to squeeze together, but Seibel calmly persists. Finally, the camera pulls back, everybody can see everybody, and the hearing can begin.

Seibel has patience with technology, a quality he says is paramount for anyone planning to conduct remote hearings. And he should know. The 8th Judicial District judge thinks he probably holds more hearings this way than any other judge in Minnesota. "I've used it almost every day since 1999," he said, which is around the time of the state's first interactive television (ITV) pilot project.

The district is overwhelmingly rural, made up of 13 west central counties, five of which have no sitting judge. That means Seibel routinely hears cases from other locations, sometimes three in one day. He can either get in his car and drive to other courthouses, a time-consuming option that defendants have the right to, or, if time is of the essence and a defendant agrees, he can hold a hearing via television.

The use of ITV for hearings is controversial and public defenders have argued that it demeans the legal process. But given dwindling public resources, it's become one way to provide court services to rural counties without unduly burdening witnesses and strapped sheriff's departments, which transport prisoners, not to mention the judges themselves. It also saves money on expert witnesses, who usually charge for mileage.

From a defendant's perspective, the matter often comes down to this: accept a remote hearing a few hours after being arrested or sit in jail for days until a judge can arrive in person. For those awaiting bail, the choice may be no choice at all. "We have to be understanding of people's time," Seibel said, noting that ITV isn't routinely used for major hearings or trials, but for the mundane stuff that makes up the bulk of a court calendar, such as bail hearings.

Resources in Minnesota's court system are thin and getting thinner, according to state court administrator Sue Dosal. "We have had a number of years of budget cuts," she said. "We have been in a chronically underfunded situation, with an insufficient number of judges around the state." The court budget has been cut by $12.5 million since 2008 to $278 million for the current fiscal year, according to state figures.

"No state has done this before. We're very proud of it. It opens up a new way to think about how we work."

Rural courts have it doubly tough because declining populations have resulted in reduced case filings, which by formula lead to slashed resources. At some point it can be hard to keep basic functions alive, which, for better or worse, is where technological innovations enter the picture. An October 2010 report from the National Center for State Courts pointed out that in 1990, the 8th Judicial District had 72 people in court administration. By 2005, the number had dropped to 52. As of 2010, "as a result of effective governance, management, leadership and implementation of innovative programs...the District has reduced staffing levels to 47 positions...and for budget reasons has reduced the hours worked per week from 40 to 37.5 hours."

"This part of the state is declining in population," said Tim Ostby, administrator for both the 7th and 8th districts. "Our court case filings mirror that. From an efficiency and good management perspective, with technology now, there are many ways to get the resources to where they are needed."

OTHER TECHNOLOGICAL FIXES

ITV, available in every courthouse in the 8th district, is just one option.

"Another thing we are just beginning to use is remote monitoring of courtrooms for keeping the record, rather than having an in-court court reporter," said Ostby. The new system allows a reporter, tasked with keeping tabs on court proceedings, to watch more than one hearing at a time via a split computer screen.

Dosal said the budget crunch also fostered the creation of a new statewide centralized citation payment system. As of last summer, traffic tickets and conservation violations have been processed by a host of state employees working from home on computers, rather than at individual courthouses. The virtual model made the ticketing process more uniform and allowed the state to employ rural court workers who might otherwise have been laid off. "No state has done this before. We're very proud of it. It opens up a new way to think about how we work."

To support Minnesota's move toward a paperless court system and to foster the use of ITV and other technology, Dosal said the state recently upgraded broadband access in its courthouses, including rural locations. "The places that need ITV the most, in the rural parts of the state, have the least bandwidth," she said. "We understood that to do ITV and move in this E-court environment, we had to have robust broadband access."

"You can't see a person sweat on ITV, or the tremor on their mouth or their hands or whatever."

Robust broadband or not, the picture on the television in Seibel's courtroom isn't very clear and sometimes the faces in other courtrooms become blurred or pixilated. But the audio is crisp. In four hearings one afternoon there were no requests to repeat information. When the court reporter said, "All rise," all rose. When the judge said, "Be seated," everyone sat down.

"I tend to be informal on the bench, on TV and in person," said Seibel. He jokingly added that he likes a slightly fuzzy picture because the people watching him remotely "can't see that I'm as cross-eyed as I am."

Seibel said if he needs a better look at a defendant or other party to a case, he can simply zoom in with the camera. And he thinks people are less stymied by a judge on a shiny screen than they used to be. "I'm guessing that our society is so used to seeing stuff on television, I'm not sure it makes much difference anymore."

LIMITATIONS

Still, he acknowledged there are limitations. It's harder to make a personal connection, he said. And it can be more difficult to tell if someone is telling the truth. "You can't see a person sweat on ITV, or the tremor on their mouth or their hands or whatever. The resolution of the camera is very good but it's not that good. The nonverbal communication you get from witnesses may not be as sharp."

It's that potential disconnect that concerns Jeffery Kuhn, an assistant public defender for Pope and Stevens counties who is involved in around five ITV hearings per month. "It takes something away from the decorum or dignity of the proceedings," Kuhn said. "I really do think the main thing is clients need to feel that their case is being taken seriously. If they have too many substantive hearings by ITV, they may feel that it's not true justice. It inhibits the defendant's rights to confrontation, to be in the same room with accusers, to look at them and observe them."

He thinks ITV works OK in bail hearings. "Obviously, waiting is worse than doing it, so my clients do it." He said ITV means less travel for public defenders, along with everyone else. "It becomes a necessary evil."

But Kuhn takes a dimmer view when it comes to civil commitment proceedings, where the examining doctor is often allowed to appear remotely. "I don't know that it would change the substance of anything, but it's not good for a person who is being alleged to be mentally ill to be talking to a TV or hearing a TV talk to them," he said. "Sometimes that is why they are being committed, because they are having hallucinations. And this validates that."

He said the doctors do the actual commitment examinations face-to-face. "But I venture to guess that if you started making these doctors travel to Glenwood on a week's notice to testify in person, I think you would find a lot of these doctors would refuse to do examinations for our county. The reality forces you into this ITV stuff."

Arguments for and against led the Minnesota Supreme Court to take a look at ITV in 2010 and issue modified rules for its use in criminal cases, expanding the realm of potential hearing types but also applying stricter standards for consent. One of the most significant changes the court made was to allow a single judge to preside over a defendant's preliminary appearance on multiple charges from multiple counties at the same time via ITV. An example would be if a person was picked up on a warrant and had warrants in four other counties. The infractions could be addressed in one "consolidated proceeding."

Seibel thinks the ways ITV will be used "are going to be driven by the people, what their wants or desires might be." But he doesn't believe a television screen will ever completely replace in-person contact with a judge.

"I can't see the judge sitting in one place and a jury someplace else and a witness someplace else," he said. "Primarily, and I'm probably biased about this, I think the judicial branch of government is the one branch that can get down and dirty in people's lives. It's one of the few places they get to tell the government, 'Judge, I think they were wrong because of this.' It's an important function of government. And if they want to look at me face-to-face and not on a camera, there will always be a place for that."

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