New $30,000 setup shows how virtual courts will survive after COVID-19

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WTVD) -- Your office conference room might already have this setup, and you might even have it at home. But does it belong in a courtroom?

"We're trying to create an atmosphere of real court in a partially virtual world," Julius Corpening, a District Court Judge in New Hanover County told ABC11. "The future is empowering us to do remote hearings when we need to and blended hearings when we need to."

Judge Corpening's courtroom in the new New Hanover County Juvenile Justice building in Wilmington features a new $30,000 system of cameras and microphones and is the pilot for a potential new reality across North Carolina. Chief Justice Paul Newby, with money from the Cares Act, secured the technology for at least one courtroom in all 100 counties.

The virtual courtroom, which went online March 1, was certainly needed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which further overwhelmed an already backlogged court system. Still, with restrictions being lifted and a return to normality, Corpening envisions a continued emphasis on virtual court.

"I see, in the courts that I hold in this building, I see us using this to assist folks who can't get here, can't get time off from work, who don't have transportation, and enable those folks to participate in a meaningful way," he said.

Karen Richards, who works in New Hanover County's Department of Social Services, said the virtual courtroom has drastically increased parent participation in proceedings.

"Having this investment opens so many doors for people who have not had access before, and when we're talking about reunification of families or terminating parental rights, we need to make sure we have all the tools in our toolbox, and this is the biggest one the judge has been able to procure for us."

The cameras, moreover, which sit above the courtroom door, perched on different corners and behind the judge, also offer something that Zoom does not: perspective.

"You have to have that decorum," Richards added. "This shows it's a serious situation."

Still, there are limits, especially in a setting where precedent is paramount.

"Will we ever gave a jury trial virtually? I doubt it," Judge Corpening said. "Moving forward, I think the pivot is how can we embrace this technology and enhance what we do as a court system to better meet the needs of the people who come to us? Part of this is about meeting people where they are."
Copyright © 2021 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.