For Judge Emily Miskel, judge of the 470th district court of Collin County, transitioning court proceedings to a virtual format takes some bravery.
“I think a lot of times, judges feel like we're supposed to be wise, and we have to look like we already know all the answers,” she said, “and if we screw something up or if we don't know how to do something, then we would look foolish, and then that would be humiliating.”
However, she said, stuff goes wrong all the time—even in a courthouse.
“We'll be in the middle of a jury trial and have a fire drill or the power will go out,” she said. “I mean, there's always an unexpected human element.”
Stuff can even go wrong in a virtual courthouse. But Miskel said that doesn’t mean judges can’t figure out how to work around it.
“My WiFi went down in the middle of a trial,” she said. “I rebooted it and got back on. We figured it out. It was OK. And so I think being willing to go out, put yourself out there in public even when you're not perfect does take some bravery.”
As court proceedings in both Collin County and across the state have moved to Zoom in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Miskel has been the face of Zoom’s judicial bloom in Texas. She has presented at webinars on the topic. She has led multiple "firsts" when it comes to remote proceedings. She has coached judges and courts from other states in giving it a try.
Now she will receive national recognition for her efforts.
In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Collin County, Miskel said she and David Slayton with the Texas Office of Court Administration tested multiple virtual formats as possibilities for court proceedings. When Slayton secured 500 Zoom licenses to allow Texas judges to test it, Miskel said Collin County judges jumped at the chance and got online right away.
“We were committed that we were going to keep up with our emergencies online,” she said.
Eventually, Miskel said, judges realized they could go beyond emergency proceedings and that they could use Zoom to undergo regular processes, too. She has since led the nation’s first remote jury trial, according to a press release.
On Sept. 3, the National Center for State Courts announced that Miskel will receive the William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence, the center’s highest honor for state court judges.
While she wasn’t looking to win an award, Miskel said it is nice to have her efforts recognized.
“I had my head down working,” she said, “and so it's nice to realize that other people acknowledge, you know, the hard work I've done in getting to help my community and keep justice moving during the pandemic.”
Six months after the pandemic first inspired state-wide shutdowns, the courthouse is starting to resume some in-person jury trials, Miskel said, but that doesn’t mean virtual proceedings will wither away. With a still-prevalent need for social distancing, in-person jury trials would probably require two courtrooms: one for the actual proceeding and one for a socially distant jury. That means the courthouse capacity will be limited.
“We're thinking that criminal jury trials where jail is a possibility are likely going to be in person,” Miskel said, “But we might look at can we do some civil jury trials remotely.”
While local judges have maintained a consistency in certain hearing proceedings, like those that involve domestic violence protective orders and temporary restraining orders, she said they have developed a backlog in case types where jury trials are important.
As the court looks ahead, Miskel’s mind rests with equality. She’s aware that the in-person jury system tends to exclude people, she said, and while using technology could mean reaching more people who would have previously been excluded, developing a plan for a remote jury trial would involve studying it carefully to make sure that there is a way for everyone to participate.
Since Miskel held the state’s first fully remote hearing and first fully virtual bench trial in March, she has trained many of the Texas judges who have in total conducted over 175,000 virtual hearings.
For Miskel, Collin County’s place in Zoom’s judicial rise is due to the county’s access to the technology and the fact that judges in the county are “tech-forward”.
“We have a high-tech county, right?” Miskel said. “We have high-tech businesses headquartered in our county, the people that we serve are high-tech, our jurors are high-tech. Our litigants are, and so not only is there no excuse for us not embracing the same level of technology that our public uses.”