Clients and their attorneys were considered a “static group” due to the need for them to speak with one another throughout the trial. They were not allowed to intermingle with other people in the courtroom.
Holding a jury trial during a pandemic is time and labor intensive for courthouse staff. The number of people in the courtrooms are limited by the Missoula City-County Health Department’s social distancing guidelines. However, court operations are public by law, which meant Vannatta’s staff had to find a way to make the trial available by video.
With the jury spread out throughout the courtroom, the staff was limited in where the camera for the video stream could be. For most of the trial Vannatta was the only person visible, aside from the court reporter.
Montana Supreme Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin said if the courts had two years to prepare to go remote, they might have time to figure out better arrangements. But, courts went remote in a matter of weeks. Most judges must figure out how to stream trials on their own.
“It’s not like watching court TV – we don’t have dual cameras in the courtrooms,” McLaughlin said. “It’s not even like watching a budgetary hearing. It’s not that sophisticated.”
This may be an opportunity to examine how the court systems operate in the future, maybe with more streaming capabilities, McLaughlin said. However, at the moment federal CARES Act funding is pretty much gone. While the state would like to provide more support, Montana has 72 courtrooms and the Montana Supreme Court Administrator’s office has one courtroom technology expert. Right now, courts are just trying to keep things running, McLaughlin said.