Taking the bench . . . home

By Hon. Rebecca L. Burton

Ahh, working from home. It seemed like I was always working from home after hours and on weekends anyway, so I think, why not? I collect my robe from chambers, look around, and wonder when I will be back.

At first, we are told that trials are not essential. I agree. I’m a judge in the Family Division. The parties have been married awhile. I figure it will just take a little longer to sort things out. We order continuances of the hearings and trials.

My law clerk, judicial executive assistant and I scan and email, making decisions on the motions, signing and filing orders electronically, no paper. Yay for the trees! We try to keep up with the new procedures created by our IT department.

This goes on for about three weeks — until I get lonely. I set a staff meeting by Zoom. And there they are! I feel connected to the world again, although the newly grown facial hair is startling.

The Zoom meetings with staff convince me that there really isn’t any reason not to try conducting hearings remotely. I am lucky to have a courtroom fitted with a giant television screen and am already accustomed to using the video program Blue Jeans to conduct annulment hearings for out-of-state tourists to Las Vegas who thought that getting married was something that “stayed in Vegas.”

I figure that if I could conduct these brief evidentiary hearings with litigants from as far away as Asia and Europe, it should be a snap to do so with local litigants and attorneys. My courtroom clerk would be the only person needed in the courtroom to run the digital recording equipment. I feel confident that this is going to work. I have already downloaded Blue Jeans to my home computer. I know my computer came loaded with Skype and assume it has video capability.

Rats, no. Amazon Prime to the rescue with a new monitor with camera. After a morning fussing with wires, I am hard-wired to the internet rather than having to rely on a sketchy wireless connection.

As I get ready to go live, I am disturbed to see how big my face is going to look to the other people in the virtual courtroom. Defensively, I reach to tilt the angle of the monitor to hide, as best I can, the silver slowly replacing the blond at the top of my head. I adjust my chair and distance from the camera to replace the giant head with a better judicial presence.

Looking at my background, I realize my Snoopy calendar probably isn’t judicially appropriate, nor are the jars filled with Barbie doll legs and arms labeled “deposit retainer here,” a keepsake from my private practice days. I move a few things around to a create a display of books that I hope will make me look sufficiently important, and I am good to go.

I have to say I have been enjoying the perks of working from home. Dressing for work is great. Robe over yoga pants, done. The commute to work is equally pleasant and blessedly brief. The most difficult impediment is trying not to trip over the dog.

Showtime

I no longer have a courtroom marshal to tell me which of the cases is ready, so I grab my cellphone to text my courtroom clerk. We figure it out.

I enter the video code and wonder why nothing is happening. I text my courtroom clerk and then enter the correct video code.

Yikes, a Brady Bunch display of giant faces stares back. They feel uncomfortably close and the atmosphere is unnervingly intimate. I can see the inside of their homes or garages or vehicles or closets where they are hiding from the kids. I tell someone he is sideways.

I notice the wardrobe choices are even more casual on video (says the woman wearing jammies under her robe). Nevertheless, shirts are still mandatory, and pants. Oops, forgot to shush the cellphone. Later, for goodness sake, it’s time to disconnect the home landline.

We try out the electronics. Who knew cellphones could create an ear-piercing screech? Not much better is the “good morning morning morning morning morning morning” echo. Having the power to mute people’s microphones almost makes up for not having a marshal in the courtroom.

Picking up a tip from a TV show, I go through preliminaries.

“Dad is on the birth certificate, establishing paternity. If you agree, raise your hand.”

“Let the record reflect that everyone has raised their hand.”

We move on like that for awhile. Eventually, I must unmute the microphones and let others speak (sigh).

Little tweaks are necessary now that visual cues are worthless. Since there is more than one attorney online at a time, “Counsel, state your appearance” becomes “Counsel for Mr. Smith, please state your appearance.”

At this point I announce a short break so I can ask my husband to lower the volume on his Andy Griffith Show reruns.

A wind storm whips around my neighborhood, causing the internet connection to be intermittent. I end up finishing the hearing by phone. I hope the record will not show my face frozen in an unpleasant expression.

I get up to turn the air conditioning on in my office and then jump back to my desk hoping no one saw my bare feet.

Dipping a toe

I find that COVID-19 has become a new excuse for separated parents to play Keep Away with their children. Sometimes it is legitimate. Other times not so much … like when mommy insists daddy don a mask and gloves to hold the baby, but the rule does not seem to apply to herself or her relatives or her friends or her boyfriend.

Meanwhile, my home co-worker is getting on my nerves. She seems to consider, “The parties are hereby restored to the status of single, unmarried persons” as her cue to start barking.

Eventually, I dip my toe into trials. Attorneys/litigants are told to scan and email exhibits, which will be received by my courtroom clerk and then distributed by email.

I have two monitors set up at home, so I am able to keep the exhibits up on one monitor. Exhibits that were offered and/or admitted are printed off by my courtroom clerk, marked with exhibit stickers, and stored in the exhibit vault as usual. In this way, we manage to create near-paperless evidence; only the clerk touches paper, limiting the possibility of contagion. I feel elated with the prospect that the expected backlog might not drown me after all.

All is going pretty well until another big windstorm hits, throwing out internet service in my entire neighborhood. I am forced to venture back in the courtroom. In real clothes. At least traffic is light.

I cautiously enter my courtroom armed with a large spray bottle of Lysol. My clerk and I are masked up … and my marshal, too, since a judge in the courtroom means a marshal must be there, too, even though there is nobody to intimidate. At least it is nice to see half of my team.

Gah, in this mask I am slightly muffled and feel stuffy. On the plus side, it is easier to hide my urge to make faces at silly arguments, and I can skip the lipstick.

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