Virtual court options stay in place even after COVID precautions leave

In Lancaster County, high-profile defendants have appeared in court virtually. It’s an option in both county and district court.
Published: May. 23, 2023 at 10:20 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Call it “court zoom” instead of a courtroom. Remote hearings are becoming a way of the future for many in Lancaster County.

What started as an option to keep people safe from COVID-19 has now become a way to make the court more accessible.

At the height of the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for courtrooms to be empty and Zoom meeting rooms to be full.

“It is easier to just log on,” said Lancaster County District Court Judge Susan Strong. “I mean, almost everyone has a phone and can access the Zoom. It just seems like we hardly ever do a plea hearing in the courtroom anymore.”

In Lancaster County, high-profile defendants have appeared in court virtually. It’s an option in both county and district court, for cases regarding civil and criminal matters, and even family law.

The judge, the lawyers, and the people they represent can all be part of a court hearing on Zoom from their office, or anywhere.

Being in the courtroom in person is no longer always the case.

“Say, a stay-at-home mom, and you don’t have daycare for your kids or don’t have anybody that can take care of your kids, you can Zoom in for court that way,” said Lancaster County Public Defender Kristi Egger.

Judge Strong said she’s seen many benefits of virtual court, including more people making their court dates, and eliminating the security risks of bringing people from a jail cell to a courtroom.

“We’re not doing Zoom hearings, because of COVID. We’re doing them because of efficiency,” Strong said. “It’s been more beneficial than detrimental.”

There are some instances where Zoom hearings aren’t allowed, like jury trials.

But Lancaster County Public Defender Kristi Egger said she hopes in the scenarios where it is allowed, that it stays that way for the long haul.

“We have another option, which is so easy to use, and so handy,” Egger said. “I think we ought to make that available and accessible to people.”

Although it may not be the case with every judge, Judge Strong said she plans to keep Zoom as an option for the hearings she presides over for the long term.