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How COVID Could Change The Way Ohio Courts Operate

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Highland County Court YouTube Channel
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Highland County Judge Rocky Coss (top center) was used to doing remote hearings when the pandemic hit. Now, he is chairing a task force on technology rule changes.

One Ohio judge wants to take the technology the courts used during the pandemic to make them more efficient.

Courts had to pivot quickly during the pandemic to relieve a backlog of cases from when they had to shut down. The technology they're using may be the way forward to make courts more efficient. Tuesday, a hearing is scheduled before the Ohio Supreme Court about making some technologies a permanent option.

Highland County Judge Rocky Coss is no stranger to technology. Even in 2009, he was doing video hearings with prisons around the state, saving time and money because deputies no longer had to drive hours to get defendants, house them overnight and return them the next day. Video hearings also helped the local jail, which used to be right next to the courthouse and moved three miles away.

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Judge Rocky Coss
Judge Coss chairs iCOURT (Improving Court Operations Using Remote Technology)

In fact, he did about 350 video hearings a year. So when COVID hit, Judge Coss was prepared. In May 2020 he started using Zoom for drug court, eventually acquiring the technology for other courts, and buying a new recording system. This was with $80,000 of government stimulus money. He continues having remote hearings when it makes sense.

Highland County Court even has a YouTube Channel so now that the court is back to in-person trials, spectators can watch from their own homes. During one such trial, Coss had 81 people watching. He says you can barely get that many people in the courtroom. Think Court TV only on a local level.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mz4wGzqQJ14

“I just had a woman I ran into in the grocery store just last week," Coss recalls. "She just came up to me and told me how she’s retired and how much she enjoys watching the court proceedings on YouTube.”

Ohio Courts Decide To Study Technology

Because of Judge Coss's level of comfort with technology, he was appointed iCourt task force chair to study how innovation can continue. The 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.

These would be things like:

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

The court approved the task force's report in July and Tuesday, Coss will ask the court for the rule changes necessary to allow for the use of the technology. Some of these changes were made just for the pandemic and this would make them permanent.
“The first steps are to get rule changes that are put in place because a lot of what we’re doing or want to do is done based on the administrative orders, and we want to get the foundations in place that will allow us to know what they can do as well as the parties and the litigants,” says Coss.

Assuming the court approves the rule, there will be a public comment period and then lawmakers have three months to approve, disapprove or do nothing. The rule changes would then go into effect next summer. Coss says it's important to keep moving forward.

The recommendations, if passed, would not mandate judges do anything differently. Coss says it just gives them more options.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.