Interview with Judge Robert Leonard

Judge Robert Leonard, Superior Court of Cobb County

Michelle Barclay, AOC Division Director for Communications, Children, Families, and the Courts recently spoke with Cobb County Superior Court Judge Robert Leonard

Edited and condensed for clarity

Barclay:  We see your social media posts announcing your daily schedule.

Barclay: Describe what a day in your life looks like now.  Do you roll out of bed, put on a black robe, and get on Zoom?

Judge Leonard:  Ah, no.  My average day is typically at the courthouse now.   I’ve done a fair amount of Zoom from home in the past, but I’ve got three crazy Labradors and some spotty WiFi in my house.  Working from the courthouse had more reliable internet and it is quieter.  But, I am on Zoom a lot, probably fifteen hours per week for court. So since the pandemic started, I am probably approaching 250 hours of “in court” time which is a lot.  If a court is sitting stagnant, it is a problem.  I have not counted  how many cases I have been able to move, but it’s a bunch.

As with regular court sessions too, when the judge schedules cases for hearings, a certain percentage of them will settle. Holding the litigants feet to the fire, setting a court date, gives an end in sight to the litigation.   Those dates cause people to rethink their position, which makes things happen in a case. For example, I might set ten cases on the calendar, seven of them will likely settle.  So that is the opportunity one misses by not using videoconferencing technology to keep cases moving.  Sometimes we have hearings, but many settle.  

I also learned that when I tried to work from home (when we went completely virtual in the beginning), I found myself working long hours outside of a normal work day which ended up being hard on my staff.  I have all my staff on Microsoft Teams and then we use Zoom for the hearings and Youtube to provide a livestream for public access when my courtroom is not open.  Coming back to the courthouse helped me set a more natural boundary for the work day.   I will say it’s been nice to see a few people in person again around the hallways of the courthouse.  In my courtroom right now, since the spike in cases, I am back to all virtual.  I ‘m not bringing anybody in person into my courtroom at this time.

Barclay:  A recent article referred to a number of folks contracting COVID-19 within courthouses. This includes State Court Judge Studdard of Henry County who, in spite of requiring masks for everyone including himself, still got a mild case of COVID-19.  Do you think there is a way to do traditional court safely?

Judge Leonard:  I have mixed feelings about it.  I think there are probably safe ways to do it, but it’s really hard to accommodate. I think it’s a decision that each judge has to make. And, you have to take into account the situation of your courthouse. In my courthouse, which is fairly new, the courtrooms have been designed to be smaller than before. I am not sure why, but it does mean that there’s a real cap on the number of people that I can safely bring in.  I have a comfort level with our courtroom size of about ten people including staff and myself.  I really can only bring in about one case at a time and have everybody at a safe distance. This ends up being really inefficient, especially when you take into consideration all of the extra precautions.  It becomes a drain on resources and manpower to do all that. People likely have to set aside half of their day to come in.  They have to park and walk to the courthouse entrance in the heat.  There, they are met with thermal scanners now and people can exceed the temperature threshold easily when first entering the building from walking over in the summer heat. We let them sit down and cool off and have an opportunity to be retested.  All of that happens before you get into the building and the person coming in will have contact with two or three people right at the entrance.  Then you have to wear a mask to get into our courthouse, then you have to get on an elevator (which is problematic), then walk down the hall probably passing or mingling with other people.  Then a person may have to wait outside of the courtroom itself.

So, in the time that it takes to move one case into a physical courtroom while keeping everybody safely separated, I can move several cases in and out of a virtual Zoom court session so much faster and with less aggravation. The idea of bringing in one case or two cases at the staggered times is a lot more work on my staff, to send notices out for those staggered times and more. We also require masks in the courtroom and they can only be removed when addressing the Judge. It is also hard to manage the hallways. I have been told stories of crowds in court hallways with people taking off masks and being unsafe.  All of this has factored into why I have chosen to go virtual, and that is the way I am going to be until things look different than they do right now.

Barclay:  What advice would you give to judges who want to use Zoom or another teleconferencing service for the first time?

Judge Leonard:  My message is that you can do this. That is the takeaway.  It can seem daunting if you’ve never done it before. You may not be the most technologically savvy person, but I promise you that there are people out there, including me, who will help you to get set up. There are resources available through the Council of Superior Court Judges, through other Councils, and through the AOC.  These folks stand ready to help.  Judge David Cannon and I just did a presentation for ICJE that is a “how-to” guide–from start to finish–on conducting virtual court. One hour of that ICJE presentation is Judge Cannon and myself talking you through a virtual hearing and the second hour is a real nuts-and-bolts class on how to set up your account, how to get the best settings, how to lock down your meeting to keep unwanted people from getting in, how to achieve public notice,  how to achieve public access, how to make a record when you’re starting a virtual hearing, what you can and can’t do, and much more (click here to view or download this presentation). I’ve done a number of training sessions with judges individually, through screen sharing, to help them get up to speed.  I have had some judges come up here to the courthouse and sit down and watch me do a virtual hearing, ask questions, and see the host controls in action. My message is that there are resources out there. And if you want to do it, there are judges that are doing it all over the state, too, so there may be people closer to your area who I’m sure would be willing to help.  

If the ICJE presentation is not shared, I’m happy to do the class for any class of court.

Barclay:  Let me ask about equipment.  You said you have a better internet connection at the courthouse than at your home.  We have some folks telling us that rural parts of our state have limited internet bandwidth which is a real problem for teleconferencing. I know that the Governor has announced a program to strengthen internet connections around the state, but it may take a little while. Do you have any thoughts about equipment for rural areas?

Judge Leonard:  I’ve had a lot of people that have joined via Zoom and some of them have had internet access problems.  Zoom actually works pretty well on a thin internet connection but there can be a difference between using cell data and using wifi.  So when we schedule virtual hearings, I send out some tips for joining a Zoom court session.  I have had to do some troubleshooting with people to help them connect. Sometimes I recommend that people get off of a wifi connection and plug directly into their router which will provide a faster connection.

However, I have found that cell phones, actually the iPhone in particular, handle Zoom very well, even on the same network as a laptop.  I think the phone renders the video in a size that does not take up as much bandwidth as a computer.  So, I find that a lot of people have a better experience on their phones than on desktops or laptops.  It is worth trying a couple of different devices.  Regarding bandwidth specifically, it may be worth reaching out to the Georgia Technology Authority or the JC/AOC who can help you reach the right person because the State has contracts with multiple vendors around the state that include relatively inexpensive solutions for wireless highspots and internet devices.  That might be a good solution.

Barclay:  My Android phone works better on Zoom too, better than my other devices.

Judge Leonard:  Good to know.  I’ve had a couple of people with spotty connections who went to a public library that had wi-fi, and some were even able to get onto the wi-fi from the public library parking lot which worked well.  So, there may be places like that and it’s worth looking at your individual cell phone provider because a lot of them are now providing free hotspots around town, at the library or other locations. That way you don’t have to use your own data and you can get a higher speed. 

Barclay:  What do you do about attorneys or parties who can’t connect easily? If a party says, “I can’t get on Zoom” is there another way to accommodate them?

Judge Leonard:  I’ve had a few people that were just not able to connect, for whatever reason. And both Zoom and WebEx (I think) allow audio-only functionality.  So people can call in on any phone.  When we email hearing notices, a few lines below the Zoom link there are phone numbers which allow people to just dial in if they need to. There are some cases where I really do not need to lay eyes on a person, so when we have trouble connecting, I have allowed people to stop their video and call back in on the audio line.  It is important that the court reporter and myself can hear them.  Thus, it might be worth checking that option out if you are having trouble connecting. 

Barclay:  Last question, there has been some discussion on social media about this pandemic being the accelerant to change court procedure.  I’ll point to a post by Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Dillard, and the mostly-civil comments it generated, about how this experience gives the judicial branch an opportunity to re-examine our inefficient and possibly archaic procedural practices. What are your thoughts on that?

Judge Leonard:  I agree 100% with that. It is already done that and it will continue to have that effect for us.  Court, for a long time, has always been this public gathering. It is incumbent on us to let go of the large calendar call.  Judges thought “this is working, it gets people to the table, while waiting they have an opportunity to negotiate and resolve cases.”  People have different opinions as to how effective large calendar calls are and I don’t want to debate that.  However, as I remember back to my private practice days, I felt like it was a huge waste of time.  At that time, I did not know what the solution was, but I was wishing for a solution, and a better way to do things.  I think this is it.   I believe this technology has life beyond the pandemic. So after there’s a vaccine, I think that it will be incumbent upon us to make sure that we continue to provide a good user-friendly experience for both the litigants and the bar.  We need to be respectful of people’s time.  I also think this has saved a number of litigants untold amounts of money by not having to travel to court, miss work, or come in from out of state.  All of that has costs.  There is no good reason to keep doing things the traditional way if you have a workable technology solution that gets done what needs to get done. 

Now I conduct a virtual status calendar, in place of my old calendar call. I will notice certain cases for which I need updates.  If I haven’t heard anything from these participants in a while, I’ll send out a notice and a Zoom link to get my update.  I’ll get the information that I need. I track it in a spreadsheet. I share that spreadsheet with my staff on Teams.  I find that process keeps things moving.  

I’m also accepting email announcements now, too. Sometimes, I will simply send an email to both sides and ask them to please update me on the status of the case. And again, I’ll make those notes in my Excel spreadsheet and move on. I just try to stay on top of things the best that I can. 

I do believe that we just have to totally rethink the way that we do business, and the impact that this experience has had on all of us and the whole state.  It will take some time. We have different hurdles to work through and we have different resources available to us. Some of us have people on staff, some of us are our own IT person and there is nothing really uniform about the way that we do business across the different classes of court in this state.  It would be nice if we were a truly unified court system, then we could have made changes in unison and perhaps we could have been a little better prepared for this. But right now, each circuit is having to make their adjustments and some are a little more nimble than others. And that’s where we’re at, but I think everybody’s doing the best that they can under the circumstances and we’ll keep making those improvements.  I am happy to share everything that I have learned to help anyone else.

Barclay:  Any last tech tips?

Judge Leonard:  Yes!  One of the pain points in conducting court has been the receipt of digital evidence. I was having the attorneys email my staff all the PDF exhibits.  That practice became cumbersome when the PDFs would come in on five different emails from each side. My staff would have to dig through all the emails in their inbox to put something together for me.  We have found a tool that makes sense of the evidence without us ever having to search for a document now. 

Judge Kim Childs and I put together a digital evidence protocol utilizing a piece of software called Citrix ShareFile.  It is a very secure way to share documents. You can think of it as a more secure version of Dropbox, or a Google Drive or something like that.  If anybody would like that protocol, if they want to sign up for Citrix ShareFile and use that as their digital evidence tool, we’ll be happy to share that protocol with any court or judge that wants it.  It has made my work so much easier. I’ve been using it for the last few weeks for all of my hearings.  It is great because the clerk can send out a link to the attorneys, the attorneys will upload all of their documents into their respective folder within the case. Then I will have access to it.  At some point when the evidence gets tendered and admitted digitally, it just goes to the evidence clerk. The evidence that does not get tendered just gets deleted.  There is no more complaining that I did not get this or that because it is each side’s responsibility to download the other side’s exhibits. It has turned out to be a good solution for us and our whole bench will likely be moving to this tool.  

Regarding signing court orders, there are a lot of court systems where you can sign into your court management system and that system will digitally sign your court orders.  We don’t have that capability in Cobb yet. But, I personally have made a digital signature and I’ve been using that signature inside Adobe Acrobat.  When I get a PDF version of an order that I need to sign, I can do it easily in Acrobat (the free version will allow you to do this). I now have a special COVID-19 signature when the date runs through the signature.  It is really easy and, again, I’m happy to help anyone with either of these tools.

A “how-to” video for making a digital signature, you can take a picture too and upload into Acrobat.