ATLANTA - It was a court hearing gone awry in the time of the coronavirus: Legal arguments in a lawsuit over gun carry licenses were repeatedly interrupted by hold music, background noise and failures of the mute button.
And it all ended in disarray, the public hearing failing to survive the temporary measures implemented to allow courts to try to function amid the need to limit in-person contact to stop the global pandemic. After about an hour of repeated distractions, the judge ended the public call, telling the parties he’d send them instructions to call in privately.
U.S. District Judge Steve Jones was holding a hearing in a lawsuit filed last week by a gun rights group arguing that probate courts in Georgia have improperly suspended the processing of gun carry licenses as part of an emergency response to the outbreak.
The chief judge of the federal court district that includes Atlanta issued an order last month in response to the outbreak. No jurors or grand jurors are to be called and many court activities are delayed, but individual judges can continue to hold hearings at their discretion, the order said.
Jones originally planned an in-person hearing Wednesday morning at the federal courthouse in downtown Atlanta. But on Tuesday he issued a notice it would be held by teleconference “in the interests of public safety” and provided a phone number for interested members of the public and journalists to call in.
Call participants were instructed before the hearing began — and while it was underway — to mute their phones if they weren’t parties to the case. But the lawyers’ voices were repeatedly drowned out by hold music. Background noise made them difficult to hear. And one man could be heard telling someone, “I’m listening to argument on the gun carry case,” and later seeming to provide commentary.
After that same man interrupted several times, the judge said he’d end the public call if it happened again — and he did when the man didn’t heed his warning. Generally even-tempered, the clearly exasperated judge apologized to journalists and others before ending the call.
Repeated interruptions aren’t the only pitfalls for remote court hearings.
A Florida judge recently admonished attorneys to get out of bed and put on some clothes before appearing by video.
Broward Circuit Judge Dennis Bailey issued the guidance in a letter published by the Weston Bar Association. Since courthouses shut down there in mid-March to help slow the pandemic, Broward County’s judicial system has been holding video conferences by Zoom.
“It is remarkable how many ATTORNEYS appear inappropriately on camera,” Bailey said in the letter. “One male lawyer appeared shirtless and one female attorney appeared still in bed, still under the covers.”
And the judge didn’t make exceptions for lawyers lounging in the Florida sunshine, either.
“Putting on a beach cover-up won’t cover up you’re poolside in a bathing suit,” he wrote, adding he won’t hold a complicated trial over the video conferencing site because of the technology’s shortcomings.