(CN) – While judges and courts across the country have leaned into technology such as conference calls to keep courts operational during the coronavirus outbreak, east Tennessee Judge Mike Pemberton had to find a solution that relied on location, location, location.
The four counties in the circuit Pemberton travels are rural and many of the parties bringing disputes do not have the technology to participate in proceedings remotely.
“And a fair number of folks, including myself in my area, don’t have the internet at home and don’t even have access to the internet,” he said. “So it’s not like I can videoconference them.”
But the courthouses were closed off because of the outbreak. His small office in Roane County is in an office complex about a half-mile from the courthouse and it could not accommodate a group of people hoping to keep their distance.
“People were calling, wanting to get their divorces done and their adoptions done, and their work comp settlements approved, and so on so forth, and those type of situations obviously require testimony,” Pemberton said.
On Friday, April 3, Pemberton took a folding table from his garage and set it up two steps outside the door leading to his office. He pulled a leather upholstered chair before the table. In one parking space, he taped down a red marker where the plaintiff’s attorney would stand. In a neighboring space 10 feet away, a red marker showed the defendant’s attorney where to argue.
Parking lot court was ready to go.
“This is the best way I could come up with to do my job as I’m required to do it and still minimize everybody’s risk. I was afraid it would sound goofy but so far everybody thinks it’s wonderful,” Pemberton said.
Elected in 2014, Pemberton spent 30 years practicing law, including six years as an assistant district attorney before becoming a judge.
The parking lot outside his office in Roane County consists of seven spaces, some of them freed up because of a next-door hair salon which shut its doors.
“I do it every 20 minutes,” he said. “You are told not to arrive early and you’re not going to stay late. And then you’re not going to get out of your car until I tell you to get out, if you need to get out. Literally last week, worker comp plaintiffs, they came in, sat in their car, rolled down their window, I swore them in, took their testimony, (they) had proved their case and on down the road they went.”
Pemberton still participates in teleconference calls. However, he plans on holding another session of parking lot court next week outside his office in Roane County and again at his office in Loudon County in the afternoon, if attorneys and the people they represent want to proceed that way.
“It’s totally dependent upon whether or not the attorneys and litigants want to do it. I can’t make them do it, nor would I make them do it,” he said.
He does not think the process is that unusual. He routinely meets with deputies seeking search warrants over the hood of a truck.
Pemberton said he does not allow members of the public to watch the parking lot court.
Normally, the court proceedings would be open to the public. But the order issued by the Supreme Court March 13 and extended 12 days later kept courts open but suspended most in-person proceedings. The order limited the people at the exempted hearings to the trial judge deemed necessary for the hearing.
Some local governments in Tennessee have used the admonishments to socially distance as a reason to go opaque said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
But while many rural Tennessee towns struggle with technology, the question of whether a government seeks to be transparent is a question of culture. And the difference, she said, isn’t a rural and urban divide.
“I don’t know how it’s working in practical terms. As long as they are accommodating everybody who wants to come, including journalists, I think that the system would work,” Fisher said of the parking lot court.
Pemberton’s district is not the only Tennessee court to struggle with technological issues. In Grundy County, for instance, cell service does not extend to the courthouse, said Deborah Tate, director for the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts.
“There are vast areas of the United States that just need more and faster broadband. It’s funny because we laugh at that old sound that dial-up used to have. But the judges will even say ‘we feel lucky if we have DSL speed,’” Tate said.
Tate, who is a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission appointed by President George W. Bush, said her office has begun exploring the state of broadband reaching Tennessee courts, and what is needed still.
The restrictions brought by social distancing orders pushed the non-unified court system in Tennessee to quickly adapt video conferencing and other technology and “probably catapulted the judiciary ahead by 10 years,” Tate said.
Meanwhile, Tate said Pemberton’s solution is creative and didn’t even need technology to keep the court carrying out justice.
“I think he’s a great example of not always relying on somebody else to solve your problems,” Tate said.