Criminal attorneys who practice in both federal and state court regularly experience the differences between the two systems. In the federal system, hearings are scheduled by specific date and time. In other words, the attorneys receive dates and times from the court staff telling them when they are to appear for their hearing. Typically, nobody else is present in the courtroom. The hearing is held, the judge either issues a decision or further instructions, and everyone moves on from there.
The state system is very different. Criminal judges have lists of matters that are scheduled for a given date, most often a Monday or a Friday. Most of these matters consist of arraignments, sentencing hearings, and relatively simple status conferences. Any given judge could have several dozen matters scheduled for the same time slot on one of those days, usually 9:00 am. The courtrooms and hallways are crowded with attorneys and defendants waiting to be heard, while the judge makes their way through the list. Many judges complete their list by the 12:30 lunch break. Matters unheard in the morning are held over until the afternoon, or given a new date. This means that attorneys, many of whom have to tend to other matters in other counties, are therefore detained in that court until they are heard or rescheduled, leaving other clients in other courts to simply sit and wait, and preventing the judges in the other counties from properly managing their list.
Numerous changes were implemented in the state system at the start of the pandemic with an eye toward meeting COVID safety requirements. Probably the most revolutionary change was the implementation of Zoom for court hearings. Zoom changed many things. It enabled state court staff to break up a long and congested calendar into specific time slots, each of which contained a relatively small number of matters. Defense attorneys and prosecutors had a better idea of when their appearance in court was actually necessary. Attorneys could sit in their offices and transact other business while waiting for their matter to be called, rather then wasting time sitting in the back of a courtroom, or driving between counties. Further, defense attorneys no longer had to devote large blocks of time to travel significant distances to cover a hearing that typically lasted between five and ten minutes.
As pandemic restrictions have eased, there has been an increase in live court appearances. Zoom is still used but, in many instances, most courts are doing business in the old traditional way and requiring attorneys to appear for live hearings. As this happens, the system is increasingly returning to the inefficient, pre-COVID business model.
The fact of the matter is that the majority of court appearances can be handled via Zoom. Indeed, the most frequent hearing in any criminal matter is a status conference during which the parties report to the court on the status of the underlying case. These hearings usually end with the matter being re-listed for a new date, most often because of discovery issues. There is absolutely no reason to require a live appearance for such a hearing. Similarly, an arraignment in a simple case, or a sentencing that does not involve the imposition of a custodial term, can also be easily handled by Zoom.
Clearly, there are certain matters, such as a motion hearing involving witness testimony or a full-blown jury trial, where Zoom obviously makes no sense. Further, there have been some abuses relating to Zoom. For example, I recall one municipal court judge noting that a defendant in a case in that court appeared via Zoom while using the bathroom. It goes without saying that such conduct is disgraceful, and evidences a complete disregard for the court and our criminal process. But it appears that abuses have been relatively limited, and Zoom has worked to increase overall efficiency in the system.
The Judiciary website previously included a small insert with the words “Re-imagining the Court”. We need to do this, and the proper and regular use of Zoom can help. The use of Zoom currently appears to be inconsistent, with different counties and different courts doing different things. Zoom, with appropriate court-issued guidelines to prevent abuses, should be implemented on a system-wide basis to the fullest extent possible. If we want to increase efficiency in an already overburdened system, it just makes sense.
James S. Friedman is a criminal defense attorney based in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Mr. Friedman represents defendants in criminal matters in the Superior Court of New Jersey in all counties, all New Jersey municipal courts, and the federal district courts in New Jersey and New York City. If you are seeking a thorough, cost-effective defense, call Mr. Friedman to discuss your case and learn about your options.