Chuck Lindell, Austin American-Statesman
Published 1:08 p.m. CT April 10, 2020 | Updated 1:26 p.m. CT April 10, 2020
The Texas Supreme Court made history Wednesday when its nine justices, sitting in their homes across the state or in their offices in Austin, connected remotely to hear oral arguments in cases that were streamed live on YouTube.
The justices, wearing robes and seated before a virtual background — a photo of their Austin courtroom — adopted the unprecedented format to follow social distancing requirements and meet via Zoom, a videoconferencing program that streams multiple images onto a single screen using computer web cameras and microphones.
The Texas Supreme Court holds oral arguments in three cases Wednesday, meeting remotely by Zoom with the event shown live on the court’s YouTube channel. (Photo: Contributed Photo)
The two Houston lawyers who joined the day’s first argument — one standing before a closed door, the other seated before a bookcase — quickly adapted to the unique circumstances.
And aside from momentary audio hiccups and minor glitches, including a lawyer who briefly lost his connection twice during the day’s final argument, the experiment was a success as the court heard three cases that had been previously postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I thought the interchanges, the questions and responses, went really well,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht told the American-Statesman afterward.
“One thing we worried about was that it would be too stilted to get the same response that you’d get in courtroom,” Hecht said. “We didn’t want this to be oral argument light. We wanted it to be the real thing.”
For each case, the Zoom feed was limited to the justices, the two arguing lawyers and a camera inside clerk Blake Hawthorne’s office that allowed him to call the court into session and display a digital timer so the lawyers would know when their time was up.
For the public, the event was streamed live on the court’s YouTube channel, which until Wednesday featured a dusty collection of old speeches and court events.
It took hours of technical preparation to accomplish what turned out to be a relatively seamless event, helped in part by a court that has long embraced technology. Traditional arguments are broadcast using fixed cameras in the courtroom, with the video archived for later viewing, and case documents and legal briefs are available online.
Lawyers participating Wednesday via Zoom were coached on proper lighting, choosing an appropriate backdrop, finding a quiet place in their homes and ensuring a strong internet connection, Hawthorne said.
“I want them to be able to make their arguments and not worry about the technology or their setup,” he said.
One final case remains to be argued in the court’s current term, and the same procedure will be used April 22.
As the coronavirus emergency worsened, there was talk of postponing the final four cases until the court’s next term begins in September, but that was scrapped, Hecht said, because “they’ve been waiting. They expect an answer.”
Justices also declined to decide the final cases solely on submitted legal briefs, he said.
“I think the key thing in our thinking was we wanted the people to see the justice system is still operating, still there when you need it,” Hecht said. “The trial courts are doing that, and this is just another signal to the public.”
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