By Michael Pressman, Research Fellow
In various courts across the country, judges have been beginning to conduct civil bench trials over videoconference platforms (such as Zoom). Among the first of such videoconference trials was a one-day civil bench trial conducted by Judge Beau Miller, a state-court judge in the 190th District Court in Harris County, Texas, on Wednesday, April 22nd. The Civil Jury Project took the opportunity to observe the trial, which was livestreamed, and here we briefly report on some of the takeaways from the videoconference trial—which seems unquestionably to have been a success.
The plaintiff in the case was Adil Ahmed, represented by Richard Daly and John Black of Daly & Black PC, and the defendant was insurer Texas Fair Plan Association, represented by James Old of Hicks Thomas LLP. The trial arose out of an insurance dispute after Plaintiff’s house was damaged during a storm and Defendant refused to pay for repairs, with Defendant arguing that the sum did not exceed the deductible. Plaintiff sued, the appraisal value ultimately exceeded the deductible, and Defendant paid the sums that were found to be owed pursuant to the policy. Defendant, however, did not pay attorney fees or interest, and, in the current trial, Plaintiff was seeking to recover the amounts it argued were due to Plaintiff as a result of Defendant’s failure to pay the initial attorney fees and interest. At the close of the one-day trial, Judge Miller requested that the parties submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law within two weeks, and he stated that he would issue his opinion thereafter.
Notes regarding trial-by-videoconference:
According to Judge Miller, more than 2,000 people watched portions of the livestreamed trial, and observers were able to view the trial by clinking on a link on the Texas Courts website. As for counsel in the trial, who used a different link, they were expected to appear in business attire, which they did.
Viewers were instructed not to record the proceedings. They were told this both via a message on the screen at the beginning of the trial and via text on the webpage of the livestream (located beneath the video window). The message stated: “No person, other than the court reporter, may record a court proceeding without the court’s permission. This prohibition applies to all persons, including members of the public viewing court proceedings on any court’s live stream and to persons with the ability to record any virtual court proceeding. Any person found to be in violation of this order faces contempt proceedings, including a fine of up to $500 and a sentence of confinement for up to six (6) months in jail for each act of contempt of court.”
At the beginning of the proceeding, Judge Miller requested and received consent orally from counsel to conduct the trial being via Zoom. Judge Miller also addressed a variety of other preliminary housekeeping matters pertaining to the videoconference nature of the trial, including that counsel should be especially mindful of the need to not interrupt one another.
The court reporter was a participant in the Zoom conference and had her own window, but participants and observers were unable to see her, as she had covered her camera. She, however, was able to see all of the participants in the trial, and this was necessary for her to carry out her role of transcription.
Exhibits were often shared and shown on the Zoom screen. This, however, was not the only source that the participants had to explore the exhibits being presented and discussed. Parties were required to exchange exhibits and provide copies to both the judge and the court reporter a day before trial, so the judge and court reporter both had paper copies at their disposal during the proceedings. This likely was a helpful measure because, while showing documents on the screen was a useful feature that worked well, documents would often be scrolled through and removed from the screen by the party sharing the exhibits, and it might at times have been difficult for participants to fully keep up without paper copies at their disposal.
There were some interruptions here and there—for example, with the court reporter at times stating that she could not hear what the parties were saying. This, however, did not seem to occur with a greater frequency than one would expect during a trial in a courtroom, where court reporters from time to time ask parties to repeat words or phrases that they missed.
The trial clearly seems to have been a success. Any technological difficulties were minimal, and the trial proceeded smoothly. Although some might have concerns—be they legal or be they practical—regarding whether trial-by-videoconference in civil bench trials can be extended to civil jury trials or to criminal trials, Judge Miller’s trial provides grounds for optimism. It provides optimism for the continued use of videoconference in the context of civil bench trials, and it also provides optimism for the possibility that civil bench trials by videoconference will serve as a springboard for judges to employ videoconference in the contexts of civil jury trials and criminal trials. While these contexts raise additional issues, a successfully conducted civil bench trial via videoconference is a key first step. We express our gratitude to Judge Miller—and to the other judges across the country who have begun to conduct trials via videoconference—for being willing to blaze a new trail forward.