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Courtroom decorum an issue with video conferencing

by Tracy Neal | January 2, 2021 at 7:31 a.m.
A Benton County courtroom Nov. 27, 2020. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

BENTONVILLE -- A man sitting in a barber's chair. A woman shopping in a store. A guy gulping beer.

All represent behaviors people have displayed while testifying in Benton County courtrooms -- online ones.

Judges across the country are using video conferencing systems for court since the covid-19 pandemic started last year. Online proceedings have affected the usual formal courtroom settings.

Benton County Circuit Judge Robin Green said she or her bailiff have had to ask individuals to put on clothes for hearings. She's asked people to pull their cars over and park instead of participating as they drive.

"Some defendants will use their phone for their court hearing while clearly shopping in a store," Green said. "There have also been a few defendants caught on a hot microphone saying inappropriate things they did not realize we could hear."

Green recalled one case where the woman was seen standing in an aisle near the cookies at a Dollar Tree.

"I would have been angry, but she had good reception" on her phone, Green joked after the October hearing.

Green said she hasn't ruled anyone in contempt of court related to an online courtroom hearing.

Benton County Circuit Judge Brad Karren has warned some about wearing hats. He's also told the occasional person to park his car. Karren reprimanded a man in October who was sitting in a barber's chair waiting for a haircut when his case was called.

Judges have targeted some attorneys for not wearing coats or neckties.

"People using video conferencing still need to conduct themselves in the same fashion as if they are sitting in the courtroom," Benton County Circuit Judge John Scott said. "They are still in a courtroom."

Scott said several of his cases each day now involve using online conferencing. Some of the cases are in person, but witnesses may testify using the video conferencing technology.

He stopped a hearing to tell one of the parties to put her dogs out of the room. He's also told one attorney to pull over his car and stop so they could have the hearing, Scott said.

Scott said circuit judges sent notices to attorneys the requirements and expectations for video conferencing court are the same as being in a courtroom. He believes it's important to maintain the traditional rules in court.

Benton County Circuit Judge Doug Schrantz agrees with Scott.

"It's coat and tie attire," Schrantz said of the dress code for male attorneys. "It's a hearing, and just because attorneys are sitting at their desks, it doesn't mean the same rules do not apply."

Schrantz believes it's important that all parties respect, observe and preserve the dignity of the legal proceedings. He's had his own unusual video conferencing encounter.

He was presiding over a divorce case during an online, morning hearing. Schrantz granted the couple's divorce, and then saw the man gulp a beer. He asked one of his staff if it was actually beer, she responded, "Yes, that's my brand of beer."

Schrantz didn't confront the man about the incident.

Mike Armstrong, a Rogers attorney, said it's difficult to have some proceedings via video conferencing. He said one hearing had to be stopped because a man involved in the hearing was outside and there was a train going by. Armstrong said dogs also were barking in the background.

Armstrong doesn't believe the formal setting of the courtroom should be relaxed for video conferencing. He feels more formality should be inserted in the online proceedings.

"I'm not sure how we do that, but I feel like allowing the other party to appear in a hoodie from his back porch with dogs barking and trains cruising by in the background takes away from the reverence of a court proceeding," he said.

Armstrong reminds his clients to dress appropriately for court.

Rogers attorney Drew Miller said he and other attorneys at the law firm tell clients to act and wear clothing like they are going to court. Miller said he thinks judges should keep the formal rules.

Jay Saxton, Benton County's chief public defender, said he's seen topless men grabbing shirts after the judge comments on their lack of clothing. He said the other classic incidents are people shopping or the ones that constantly walk during their hearings.

"We tell them to stand still and don't go anywhere, and it doesn't help," Saxton said.

Saxton said he feels it important the same court decorum remains.

"I don't think they need to have hats or sunglasses on in court or on video," he said. "I don't think they need to be disrespectful to the court in any manner. I guess I'm just that way."

Armstrong said the difficulties with online conferencing extend beyond court decorum.

He said cross-examination of witnesses is the toughest part. It's impossible to recreate the meaningful interaction that attorneys have with the opposing party or their witnesses for the judge over a computer monitor.

Armstrong said he's found the presentation of evidence to be one of the toughest aspects of online hearings.

"Getting exhibits before the judge can be tricky on a normal day," he said. "It's sometimes impossible when you're trying to thread the needle via" online conferencing.

More News

Online Courtroom Etiquette

Arrive on time and follow online platform directions to minimize distractions during the proceeding

Dress appropriately for court

Eliminate any distractions that may interrupt proceedings

Do not speak out of turn or interfere in testimony

Be courteous and respectful to all participants

Do not bring food

Do not use tobacco or vaping products

Show the same courtesy the court is showing

Source: Florida’s Lee Circuit Judge Amy Hawthorne’s guide for online courtroom decorum

Tracy M. Neal can be reached by email at tneal@nwaonline.com or Twitter @NWATracy.

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