Hon. Stephen Powell, President
Greetings from Greater Cincinnati, Ohio where I sit, and from the Council of Chief Judges of the State Courts of Appeal headquartered at the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia. First let me thank Presiding Justice Brad R. Hill of the California Court of Appeals, Fifth District for his hard work this past year as our President. He handled a difficult year in superb fashion, and we are all grateful. I would also like to thank President Mary McQueen and her staff at The National Center for State Courts for all their work on our behalf. We would be adrift at sea were it not for them. As the new President of our organization, I wanted to welcome you to 2021 while bidding a not so fond farewell to 2020. All of us hope that 2021 will be a better year. And how could it fail? Well, uncertainty reigns. Recall that if we could only flatten the curve by Easter, things would be better. Then the summer sun would put it behind us. Then 80+% mask compliance and we could begin to act normal. Here we stand humbled by something we can’t even see with the naked eye. And we’re left to hope that the vaccines work.
The Council’s core mission or purpose is to promote the improvement of the administration of justice by gathering as a body for consultation and education. We do that when we gather in committee meetings and at our annual conference where we exchange ideas on how to better run our respective courts. As we enter this new year, I thought I would open the 2021 discussions with a few of my thoughts.
During this past year we have found new ways to work. Nine to five is now non-binding, rather we work whenever it suits us. The physical office has been replaced by the virtual office. Our filing cabinets are in the cloud, and for many of us have been for a few years. But imagine if it was just a few years back when you couldn’t get the file because someone else had checked it out of the clerk’s office. Give me the encrypted cloud, or SharePoint. And face to face exchanges with your fellow judge was the gold standard to promote better collegiality. The old rule was to walk down the hall and talk face to face. Harder to do with remote working and social distancing. But Zoom, or its equivalence makes that possible. Why not FaceTime or Duo? And if you’ve been doing larger teleconference meetings, have you noticed that Zoom may be cheaper? We just heard from Westlaw at our virtual conference that judicial quick check may enhance your ability to interact with your staff attorneys in a more efficient way. There are far more examples.
We all hope the vaccines get us back to normal. But where and what is normal after this pandemic? I work differently now. Don’t you? I buy differently. I’ve known my mail carrier’s name for years, but now I know the UPS, Fed Ex, and Amazon Prime drivers as well. My point is don’t be in a hurry to scrap what you and your courts have been doing this past year just to get back to ‘normal’. My courthouse is a stand-alone office building. We have been operating like a doctor’s office. While we won’t continue that, we can continue to space and check temperatures and use hand sanitizer. But will we go totally back to in person oral argument? Why? Our appellate bar has enjoyed avoiding the commute to our building. For some of them it’s a two hour plus round trip. So, we may add a ‘virtual argument day’ to our ‘oral argument day’ and ‘submitted on the briefs day’ calendars. It’s easier on the practitioners and cheaper for their clients at any hourly rate. And, with the right equipment in the courtroom, why not consider a blend of physical and virtual attendance, by attorneys and judges alike? Think about mixing it up while you have a window of opportunity. Then think about how you look on that video screen. Be careful what you wear under that robe. Plus, don’t forget to make it open to the public with a YouTube feed.
I used to be able to read anywhere. Now I can read, research, hear, case conference, draft and finalize my work from anywhere on several types of devices. My staff attorneys can do the same, though my court didn’t let them until the pandemic. We never ever thought our administrative assistants could work from home. We were wrong. Their home devices, and phones worked just fine. But we expect to provide them any needed equipment, so they don’t need to use their own. Our staff proved to be more efficient and individually happier with the flexibility of doing the court’s work from home at the times of day when they could best work for their situations. Be it childcare or eldercare or personal health issues. Working nine to five like Dolly Parton is more of an entertaining fiction. Work output, not clock punching, is the new measure of productivity. That commute time savings has been an unexpected perk. That extra sixty plus minutes a day is being put to use in some way by all of us. Hopefully for the good. And I expect we will stagger staff our building and allow a blend of home and work employment. Our judges have been working like this. Seems like it’s sauce for the goose.
It is my hope that our Technology Task Force led by Judge Gary Lynch, of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, and Presiding Justice Vance W. Raye of the California Court of Appeals, Third District will harvest our collective thoughts on this subject. That Judges Lynch and Raye will collaborate with our valued and perennial benefactors at Thomson Reuters Westlaw and at The National Center for State Courts, our secretariat, to identify all available technology tools and practices that can and should be used moving into the future. In that way perhaps we can develop strategies that work well in each of our courts, thereby profiting from this pandemic by enhancing our efficiencies and ultimately the delivery of justice.
I am honored to serve as your President, and I virtually look forward to seeing you all in person, in Boston in October 2021.
Best Regards for a safe 2021.