By Hon. Tina L. Nadeau, Chief Justice NH Superior Courts
A year has passed since Governor Sununu first declared a state of emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic. While it seems hard to believe we are reaching the anniversary this month, looking back I
am astonished by how much has changed.
At this time last year, I sent texts to friends postponing a spring party I had scheduled for April 2020 to what seemed a safe date; June 2020. I also have photos I had taken of completely empty grocery store shelves, a sight which before then I had only seen in apocalyptic movies. Of course, shopping itself became an entirely different experience, and I can remember the strange looks I received last spring when I was one of the first few to wear a mask while shopping.
I am also struck by how little we knew at the beginning of the pandemic and likewise how far we’ve come in learning to conduct more isolated, but safer, lives. While we have watched as untold suffering unfolded across the country, we have also shared moments of community connection, provided support for struggling friends and witnessed the strengthening of empathy between neighbors. We have been through so much together, and while there is still more to come, with the slow but steady distribution of a vaccine, we now have tangible hope for a return to normal.
With the pandemic starting to slow, we can also take stock of the changes forced upon us and challenges ahead.
What changes did we see in the courts in the past year? As the pandemic gathered strength, the Judicial Branch moved quickly to adapt to the need for remote hearings. We now conduct almost all hearings by WebEx or through telephonic hearings. By embracing remote technologies, the courts have not only assured access to justice continues, but have provided a convenient way for attorneys and litigants to conduct business. No longer do parties have to drive an hour or more to court for a 15-minute scheduling conference or review hearing. And even when we are able to return to in-person hearings, some remote hearings will be here to stay.
We have rearranged our courtrooms to conduct safe jury trials, and we have developed jury trial protocols that balance public health needs with the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. These efforts will ensure that in the future, should another pandemic hit, we will be better prepared to meet the challenge promptly and weather it with resilience.
In the months ahead, to reduce the backlog of jury trials created in the wake of COVID-19, the Superior Court will tap into our fully electronic processes and bring in several retired judges, who have offered to help, to preside over jury trials in counties that can accommodate additional judges. Here the ability to conduct remote hearings will show its value, allowing me to shift regular hearing work to judges in other counties where the jury trial backlog is less significant.
We have also begun the lengthy process of fitting our courthouses with proper ventilation and filtration systems. After consulting with our infectious disease expert, Dr. Erin Bromage, we have worked with the Department of Administrative Services (DAS) to evaluate the filtration systems of each courthouse, whether they are state owned or county owned. The discovery of some deficiencies in the ventilation and filtration systems will require the investment of capital funds to ensure the safety of our buildings. But through the work of DAS, we now have a plan for improving the filtration systems in many of the courthouses.
Not only has COVID-19 taught us the importance of being prepared in processes and facilities but also, and perhaps most importantly, it has brought to the forefront issues we knew already existed across the criminal justice system but have yet to confront; racial and financial disparity of incarcerated defendants.
For instance, just this month, Department of Safety findings were reported indicating that in New Hampshire minorities are incarcerated at a greater rate proportionally than white citizens. A national report issued by the Council on Criminal Justice indicates that across the country “the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated some racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.” The report noted specifically that “as jail populations began to fall in March at the onset of the pandemic, there were increases in the proportion of people who were Black, who were booked on felony charges, who were male, and who were 25 or younger. These changes in the population composition persisted even as jail populations began to rise again in early May.”
As we take stock of the pandemic’s toll on the state, on our courthouses and communities, we should also examine what it has revealed about the state of racial and financial justice here. The pandemic has challenged all of us to adapt to an uncertain and lethal virus. It should also prompt us to examine racial disparities more fully and to take action to reduce them in our courts, jails and communities. I hope that leaders across all disciplines will use the lessons of the past year not only to build better systems to adapt to future threats but to commit to eliminate the ongoing dilemma of overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal justice system.