Although many Douglas County District Court hearings are still occurring via Zoom videoconferencing, few are now being publicly livestreamed on YouTube, in large part because of the burden to court staff.
As with all indoor venues, attendance in court has been limited throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Streaming hearings via YouTube has served as a stopgap measure to allow open public access, and the local court’s online “channel” has garnered about 1,550 subscribers since it went live a year ago.
Chief Judge James McCabria said via email this week that, after discussing the issue among the judges, seeking input from the district attorney’s office and making informal inquiries of local attorneys, he issued a new administrative order on April 27.
With the new order, the courtrooms have essentially reopened to the public. The order removes a requirement that had been in place for anyone who is not a party or attorney involved in a matter to request permission from the division judge prior to attending a hearing in person.
McCabria said the only limit for capacity is that 6 feet of social distancing will be maintained and enforced until county health orders permit otherwise. Court security is still screening for COVID-19 at the entrance, and masks and other safety measures are still required.
The weekly division dockets — during which attorneys and their clients would typically pack the courtrooms, before the pandemic — are still taking place over Zoom and will still be livestreamed on YouTube.
McCabria explained that although there are no out-of-pocket costs to the court for the YouTube livestream, “the additional duties it imposes on court staff to manage and monitor the proceedings is not insignificant.” He said the technical demands were deemed to be more than could be justified.
The order does state that should a courtroom reach capacity where social distancing can’t be maintained, no additional members of the public will be allowed to enter. If anyone is denied entry, the judge can resolve that in a manner they deem appropriate.
Hearings in some high-profile cases may also still be livestreamed at the judge’s discretion.
“In individual cases, the Court may livestream based on requests of parties or the Court’s own view that sufficiently large/broad public interest exists that the physical courtroom limits would materially impede fair public attendance – as balanced against any other interests of that particular case,” McCabria said via email.
For instance, McCabria wrote that “I would expect (but am not promising)” that substantive hearings in Rontarus Washington Jr.’s case, which is in his division, will likely be livestreamed, though perhaps not scheduling hearings.
McCabria noted that Zoom appearances have been “extremely popular” with parties and attorneys involved in civil and criminal cases.
“We are able to do that because of administrative orders of the Kansas Supreme Court and hope those orders continue into the future,” he said.
McCabria said livestreaming is a surprisingly multidimensional issue, and the court continues to consider the best way to use it as a tool to expand public access.
“There have been multiple scholarly articles published in the past year that analyze the issue,” he said. “Finding the time to process and consider all of the information will simply take some time.”
The daily docket for Douglas County District Court is available here, and a calendar of hearings set for the next six months is available here. More information, including contact info for the court divisions, is online here.
— Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at email@example.com or 785-422-6363.