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Ohio courts have made a 'seismic shift' for COVID. Soon many proceedings can be permanently virtual

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Highland County Court
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Highland County Judge Rocky Coss (center) started doing video arraignments in 2009 when he didn't have deputies to transport prisoners. So when COVID hit he was prepared for virtual hearings and asked to chair a statewide committee to made the changes permanent.

Ohio judges will be allowed to conduct much of their business virtually on a permanent basis beginning July 1, 2022, pending final approval from the Ohio Supreme Court and no objection from lawmakers.

During the pandemic, courts were allowed to have remote hearings and testimony, but the special accommodations were temporary.

The high court approved one set of rule changes in March and is set to approve another April 15.

Highland County Judge Rocky Coss was asked to chair the iCOURT task force (Improving Court Operations Using Remote Technology). Coss has been doing video arraignments since 2009, noticing it made the court more efficient.

So, during COVID, he put all his technology to use, allowing virtual testimony, remote attorney hearings and Zoom for drug court. He even has a YouTube channel for his courtroom.

The iCOURT committee surveyed attorneys, judges, court administrators and more to get their thoughts. The 5,000 responses helped develop 100 recommendations given to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Things like:

  • video arraignments
  • allowing witnesses to testify remotely
  • being able to have virtual bench trials

There was one idea the Supreme Court rejected: remote criminal jury trials. Coss is not surprised, pointing out there are concerns about not being able to face your accuser. The court did allow virtual civil jury trials.

Judges do have leeway when it comes to technology, according to Coss.

“Courts aren’t mandated to do this and every judge will still have the flexibility and the discretion to determine how much of this to utilize.”

During the pandemic Texas and Florida also experimented with virtual proceedings. The National Center for State Courts is studying rule changes made across the country, including in Ohio.

Coss says courts have made a "seismic shift" in their use of technology. He looks forward to the future.

“It’s early on and will take time. I think there will be a lot of work done on that in the next five to ten years.”