This article was published online on April 13, 2021.
In July, Michelle Rick, then a circuit-court judge in two Michigan counties, tweeted cheerily about a divorce she’d recently finalized. The participants had appeared in court via their smartphones. “He was on the road & parked his car to attend; she video-tx’d from her work breakroom,” the judge wrote. They were done in 15 minutes—faster than the proverbial Reno divorce.
Last spring, as COVID‑19 infections surged for the first time, many American courts curtailed their operations. As case backlogs swelled, courts moved online, at a speed that has amazed—and sometimes alarmed—judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. In the past year, U.S. courts have conducted millions of hearings, depositions, arraignments, settlement conferences, and even trials—nearly entirely in civil cases or for minor criminal offenses—over Zoom and other meeting platforms. As of late February, Texas, the state that’s moved online most aggressively, had held 1.1 million remote proceedings.
“Virtual justice” (the preferred, if unsettling, term) is an emergency response to a dire situation. But it is also a vision some judicial innovators had long tried to realize. One leading booster, Michigan Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, told me that going online can make courts not only safer but “more transparent, more accessible, and more convenient.” Witnesses, jurors, and litigants no longer need to miss hours of work and fight traffic. Attorneys with cases in multiple courts can jump from one to another by swiping on their phones.