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Shoeleather Journalism in the Digital Age

Shoeleather Journalism
in the Digital Age

Technological advances at Maricopa County Superior Court slow to be embraced by legacy profession

Photo of Maricopa County Superior Court
The Superior Court of Maricopa County, which is found in the heart of downtown Phoenix, has seen a steady increase in cases as population balloons, but the COVID-19 global pandemic has forced technological innovation on legacy practice. (File Photos/DigitalFreePress.com)

A day at Maricopa County Superior Court reported

By Ethan Hall | Special to the Digital Free Press

Every year, Maricopa County Superior Court sees about 163,000 cases ranging from minor civil disputes to serious criminal matters.

The Superior Court of Maricopa County, which is found in the heart of downtown Phoenix, has seen a steady increase in cases as population balloons but the COVID-19 global pandemic has forced technological innovation on legacy practice.

Officials report pre-pandemic courtrooms have always been slow, with the average backlog for a court sitting at 958 cases, according to a study by the Thomas Reuters Institute. Although, at this time, many court systems implemented the use of Facebook live or Zoom to complete some court hearings, it was still in the beginning phases, experts say.

As the global pandemic unfolded, American courts had to scramble to find ways to conduct hearings and meetings in a safe and accessible way — Maricopa County Superior Court was no exception.

The public health threat posed by COVID-19 led to virtual meetings oftentimes cobbled together and not optimized for the courtroom.

The study by Thomas Reuters Institute surveyed more than 238 judges and court professionals at the state, county and municipal courts level. The research shows that during the pandemic, about 63% of cases were completely online through virtual meetings.

The data also indicates that civil cases were conducted most online at 76% and a close second with criminal at 72%. And, on the contrary, things like appeals were near the bottom of the list, with only 5% in total. However, not all courtrooms or cases could proceed online, whether that was because of the workers or the courtroom’s physical restraints.

Not all courts are the same — some had begun testing the waters with virtual meetings in 2019, while others hadn’t even started to consider it.

A day at Maricopa County Superior Court

On Monday, Oct. 10, Superior Court Judge Justin Beresky began around 8:30 a.m. hearing and making decisions on scheduling for many cases ranging from minor offenses like vandalism or destruction of private property to more severe cases like arson or sexual assault. Through the day’s proceedings, it became clear Judge Beresky prefers in-person proceedings.

According to Professor William Weines at Arizona State University, the courtroom is a workplace just like anywhere else despite the oftentimes serious subject matter.

“It’s really more about the local workers in that court they really create the dynamic and expectation and time standards.” he pointed out.

In the courtroom on Oct. 10, observations made included the work culture leaning toward more casual proceedings, with attorneys chatting with each other while the judge was carrying out decisions or other workers of the courtroom talking and discussing personal lives. There also appeared to be regular miscommunication between the judge and the clerk.

Maricopa County Superior Court is an American institution that takes “innocent until proven guilty” very seriously, officials there say, and aims to give all people an equal chance to defend themselves.

Editor’s note: Mr. Hall is a journalism student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Communication at Arizona State University.

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