State courts adapt to Zoom online videoconferencing proceedings.

Byline: Michaela Paukner,

"We'll call the treatment court session into order. This is April 15, 2020, so welcome everyone."

From a transcript, Dunn County Circuit Court Judge James Peterson's April 15 treatment court session would seem to be business as usual. But for the participants, the setting wasn't quite the same.

On a recent day, Peterson met with various parties using Zoom online videoconferencing, which was then livestreamed on Branch 1's YouTube channel for the public. Peterson was the only one who was physically present at the courthouse in Menomonie, northwest of Eau Claire. The other six participants either joined from their individual homes or, in one case, a car.

Dunn County Branch 1 is one of about 70 circuit court branches in 23 counties livestreaming court proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. After Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency on March 12, the Wisconsin Supreme Court temporarily suspended jury trials and in-person appearances, allowing very few exceptions.

Around the time of the emergency declaration, Director of State Courts Randy Koschnick said the court system had purchased a license for Zoom and issued Zoom accounts to the state's 249 circuit court branches. Already he was anxious that courtrooms might be shut down because of the pandemic and wanted to find alternative ways to keep them open.

"Zoom gives judges the tools to get their dockets running again while respecting social distancing and other rules that have been announced by the governor," Koschnick said. "We're trying to provide more transparency and access to the public using technology."

Peterson, who hadn't heard of Zoom before the court's adoption of it, said openness and transparency are why he's committed to making use of the new technology and why he's encouraging others to turn to it as well.

"If you're doing the public's work, although it makes some people a little nervous and uncomfortable to have a camera on you all the time, it's pretty important to be open," Peterson said.

Using Zoom as the courtroom

Koschnick and his team including Jean Bousquet, CCAP chief information officer have been the ones chiefly responsible for getting Zoom to work with new and existing court technology, including courtroom video-conference systems and YouTube.

YouTube provides public access to court proceedings, while helping to keep them secure. Courts have been holding closed Zoom meetings, which are open only to...

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