This opinion column was submitted to the RGJ by Kathleen Sigurdson, Reno attorney and candidate for Department 10 judge for the Nevada 2nd Judicial District Court.
COVID-19 has made a significant impact on my civil cases heard in District Court as well as my campaign for Washoe County District Court Judge. The courts have closed and this means no in person hearings and definitely no jury trials on any civil matter.
My clients, who are the victims of someone else’s negligence, are not able to obtain the timely justice they deserve. I have to acknowledge that the degree of access to the civil judicial system, or lack thereof, is not any one person’s fault in particular. However, the United States Supreme Court realized they cannot remain silent and used the tools they had to hear cases via electronic technology and local courts should follow their lead. This is not the complete answer to our need to move civil and all non-criminal cases forward.
If, God forbid, there is another pandemic during my tenure on the bench, or a “second wave” of the current pandemic, I would commit myself to working with other judges to safely (emphasis on safely) and quickly opening civil courts for business.
The courts do continue to process criminal cases due to the very nature of the need to arraign these cases and the constitutional right of a charged criminal to a speedy processing. Civil cases, however, do not have the same level of access to the court system, but they do still have the right to have a competent court and jury to hear and decide their cases.
It must be acknowledged that the process of reopening the courts is not entirely in the hands of the court leaders. Federal courts were advised to work towards reopening, but to also heed the recommendations of local officials. With this in mind, our court leaders must use the tools available to promote the forward movement of the cases that need administering. Some courts have attempted to use electronic technology.
Recently, a judge in Texas used Zoom technology to seat a jury. We seat a jury to evaluate and weigh the evidence and testimony. The Texas Zoom trial had a hitch; one of the jurors walked out of the Zoom trial to answer his phone. When he left the Zoom trial he missed hearing some evidence and could not evaluate its veracity for the truth. I am thankful for the effort of this judge and courthouse to attempt to move the process forward in a safe manner, but there will be glitches that occur. As an elected judge I will work to refine the process.
So our entire justice landscape has changed, both on the campaign trail and in the courtroom. No one has complete answers to what we all are living through. We don’t have answers on how we are going to manage simple tasks such as household supplies, let alone balancing the scales of justice. When court leaders are willing to try, we cannot ask for more than that. We need to move forward in a prudent manner, but we must move forward. We can use the gallery as the seats for a jury to sit in while listening to the facts and evidence of a case. We can use Zoom for jurors who occupy various rooms throughout the courthouse in order to facilitate justice for all.
Our community has options; we just need to be flexible and creative. As your next Washoe County District Court Judge, I am committed to just that sort of innovation and creativity.