A recent Op-Ed in The Seattle Times urged courts to forego virtual proceedings and return, as we transition out of the pandemic, to trying cases the way Abraham Lincoln did [“What gets lost when Zoom takes over the courtroom,” Opinion, June 2].
Lincoln, however, did not always present his cases in “venerable” courthouses, but rather traveled the circuit, trying matters in community road houses. In maintaining the rule of law, what ultimately matters is not the location but rather the dedication of all participants to provide justice. This commitment to timely providing a forum in which the rule of law may thrive is exactly why the federal court for the Western District of Washington has pioneered the use of Zoom to conduct trials and other proceedings during the pandemic and why remote proceedings should continue in federal courts.
In the fall of 2020, after extensive preparation, our court tried the first entirely remote jury case in any federal court. This virtual trial allowed an 86‑year-old woman to have her case adjudicated in a professional setting, despite the courthouse closure caused by COVID-19. The jury awarded the plaintiff a substantial verdict, and as an indication that the remote nature of the trial did not detract from the fundamental fairness and dignity owed to every litigant, the defendant has paid the judgment without an appeal.
Since then, the federal judges in Seattle and Tacoma have conducted 16 jury and 10 bench trials using the Zoom platform. During this period, both our protocols and the web-based platforms we use have improved. These improvements enabled us, with the consent of the prosecution and the defendant, to recently conduct jury selection in a criminal case in a hybrid-virtual manner, in which the judge, the attorneys and the parties were in the courtroom, but the prospective jurors participated remotely.
Judges, attorneys and jurors who have participated in virtual trials in the Western District of Washington have been enthusiastic about the process. For judges who have taken advantage of the technology, it has reduced their backlog of civil cases. Attorneys have acted professionally and displayed an eagerness to develop the skills needed to navigate the virtual world of tomorrow. In light of this interest, the American Bar Association has created a podcast in which judges from our court discussed their virtual trial experiences and the continuing role that remote proceedings will play.
Jurors have been, perhaps, the strongest proponents of remote trials. Prospective jurors have responded to summonses for virtual trials at a much higher rate than for in-person trials. Jurors who have previously served in person have reported that they were able to more easily see the witnesses and exhibits. Indeed, one juror was quoted in the media as reporting that the virtual experience was “in almost all respects better” than in-person jury duty.
The ability to appear remotely is also advantageous to witnesses, particularly those who reside outside our district. In recent virtual trials, individuals located in Jordan, Yemen and even on a ship in the Caribbean Sea were able to testify without diminishing the integrity of the proceedings.
The pandemic has challenged our court to develop alternative ways of conducting trials. We continue to try cases remotely while anticipating a return to the courthouse. Our experience, however, has demonstrated that virtual proceedings have benefits for the future. We have had greater juror participation and seen a reduction in costs to the court and the litigants. Although remote trials will not replace in-person trials, they provide another platform to accomplish the goal, set forth in the first court rule, of offering parties the most “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination” of their disputes. Abraham Lincoln would not have suggested a retreat from our recent progress, but rather would have applauded our innovative efforts to provide justice.