UPDATES & ANALYSIS

7.14

Iowa Supreme Court seeks public comment on proposed rules governing remote court proceedings

by Rox Laird | July 14, 2023

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Iowa Supreme Court created temporary rules for conducting remote trial and appellate proceedings when in-person hearings and trials were not considered safe.

Although Covid concerns have receded, Iowa judges, lawyers, and court administrators have recognized the need to continue to have the option of conducting court proceedings remotely, via Zoom or other videoconferencing technology.

In March, Chief Justice Susan Christensen appointed a Remote Proceedings Task Force to propose such rules governing court proceedings that occur remotely to guide the courts in any future pandemic and to increase the efficiency of the courts.

“As the judicial branch emerges from the Covid recovery stage, it is time to integrate and standardize the use of remote proceedings into judicial branch operations,” Chief Justice Christensen said in announcing the appointment of the Task Force members. “Statewide policies will promote consistency, fairness, and transparency for all court users as well as reduce costs and improve efficiency.”

The Task Force consisted of 110 Iowans who volunteered their time to the project, including judges, court administrators, lawyers, court reporters, and others associated with the court system. [Disclosure: Rox Laird, a contributor to the Nyemaster Goode On Brief blog, was one of two members appointed to the Task Force representing the media.]

The Task Force was divided into three sub-groups, civil, criminal, and family/juvenile, and began work in April. They met over Zoom over the weeks that followed and drafted proposed rules with the aid of Supreme Court staff attorneys.

The product of that process was released July 10, and the Court invited public comments with a deadline of Aug. 3 at 4:30 p.m. The proposed rules are available on the Judicial Branch website here, along with final reports of each of the sub-groups, guidance on how to submit comments, and public comments that have been received so far.

The proposed rules create a new Chapter 15 of Iowa’s Court Rules, setting forth a number of procedures governing when and how Iowa courts may utilize remote or hybrid proceedings. At the outset, the draft states that, “all court proceedings are presumed to be held in person” unless otherwise provided by statute, or as provided in what will become Chapter 15 of Iowa’s court rules, which provides for remote court proceedings.

“Remote proceeding” is defined as “a court proceeding in which all participants appear using an Iowa Judicial Branch approved communications service.”

A “hybrid proceeding” is defined as a court proceeding in which “one or more but fewer than all participants appear using an Iowa Judicial Branch approved communications service and others are physically present in the courtroom.”

If a court orders that a public proceeding be held remotely, the proceeding would be open to the public, and that if a proceeding open to the public is held as a hybrid proceeding, “members of the public who wish to view the proceeding may do so in person, and the court may permit members of the public to view the proceeding remotely.”

The proposed rules state that any party may move for a Court order allowing the party to appear at a hearing remotely, or in person, and also provide district courts with authority to order hearings to take place remotely on their own initiative. In evaluating such requests to proceed remotely or via hybrid proceedings, the proposed rules provide a list of 14 factors courts must consider on a case-by-case basis, including the type of case, type of proceeding, technical ability of the parties to participate remotely, and “[w]hether use of remote or hybrid technology will undermine the dignity, solemnity, decorum, integrity, fairness, or effectiveness of the proceeding.”

The proposed rules also set forth requirements for parties participating in court proceedings remotely, including by incorporating the directives contained within the Iowa Judicial Branch Remote Proceeding Toolkits, available on the Iowa Judicial Branch’s website.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to consider the rules and public comments during its administrative term this month and next before issuing final rules.

 

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