The Maine Judicial Branch has finally issued guidance for members of the public and the press who want to watch virtual hearings, more than four months after the pandemic disrupted court operations.

The state courts have been slowly scheduling more hearings, trying to address a mounting backlog. But they have relied heavily on video conferencing without a reliable way for the public to observe.

Courtrooms have technically been open for people who want to listen in on virtual hearings, but Friday’s announcement was the first official guidance about how to do that. It was also the first time the state courts have said the public will be allowed to watch those hearings online without going to a courthouse, an option that has been available in Maine’s federal courts for months.

Meanwhile, the Judicial Branch is asking for $8.5 million in emergency federal funds to improve those video and telephone hearings.

“The bottom line is that our courthouses and paper systems have proved to be inadequate in the face of this public health emergency,” Ted Glessner, the state court administrator, wrote to lawmakers last week.

Judy Meyer, executive editor of the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Kennebec Journal in Augusta and Morning Sentinel in Waterville, spoke to court officials in May about the need for public access to the courts. She said they were gracious and responsive in developing the plan that was released Friday.

“I do think the court was responsive in developing this plan, and was gracious in collecting voices from stakeholders, but there are simply so many wrinkles under COVID that not all can be ironed out,” said Meyer, who is also the vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition.

Meyer said she is concerned about new hurdles for the public to access court proceedings. The order directs people who want to listen to or observe a remote hearing to contact the clerk’s office. She worried that people who do not have email addresses or reliable internet access would not be able to receive that log-in information or watch the hearing online.

“I think the rules for the press are fair and ensure our ability to cover the business of our courts, but I’m not so certain that the public will be able to access proceedings with the same ease,” she said. “The media is accustomed to filing coverage requests and has the technology needed for digital access. The public is not so well equipped and the requirement that people contact the clerk’s office to obtain an invitation is a hurdle for the public and, I expect, for the clerks.”

Other public entities have adapted to virtual platforms more quickly. The Maine Legislature, for example, has been holding committee meetings on Zoom and live-streaming them on YouTube. But Amy Quinlan, spokeswoman for Maine Judicial Branch, said the transition has been more complicated for the courts.

They have struggled to navigate what they call “hybrid” hearings, when some parties are in the courtroom and others join remotely. They needed a platform that would protect the rights of every participant, like the right for an attorney and a client to speak in private even if they weren’t in the same room. They also needed a platform that would create a record of the hearing, which is required by law. The Judicial Branch finally settled on Zoom, which has been used by the federal courts in Maine since the start of the pandemic.

“It is part of what we’ve taken some time to work through,” Quinlan said. “We’re getting there.”

But getting there will require money.

Maine received $1.25 billion through the federal CARES Act, which provided states with emergency funds to respond to the pandemic. The state has allocated some – but not all – of that money so far.

Anya Trundy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said $588 million has been dedicated to needs like personal protective equipment, the unemployment claims and insurance trust fund, coronavirus testing and rent relief. That still leaves $662 million, although Trundy noted that the unemployment system and local schools will likely need more money than what has already been allocated to them.

The Judicial Branch is asking for $13 million from that remaining pot.

A one-page summary shows that $8.5 million would be used to improve the technology used in remote hearings, but it does not provide a specific breakdown of how that money would be used. Quinlan said it would cover Zoom licenses, as well as equipment like cameras and microphones.

The remaining $4.5 million in the request would mostly be spent on facilities, including improvements to ventilation systems and rental of extra space for jury selection.

Court officials first submitted that request in May, and Glessner made his pitch directly to the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee last week. That group is not responsible for directly allocating funds but is tasked with making recommendations to the governor’s office.

Glessner told them the Judicial Branch has already spent more than $700,000 on costs related to COVID-19, including the Zoom licenses and laptops. Its budget for this year is $87.8 million.

“But by doing so, we have sacrificed in the short-term available funding for other critical court programs. … If we do not receive federal funding to support these solutions, we will need to make drastic changes to our budget for the current year which will significantly impact our ability to provide services,” he wrote in his testimony.

But whether Gov. Janet Mills will grant that request is still uncertain. Trundy said Mills has asked Congress to give more aid to the states and more flexibility in using that money.

“The Administration is taking into consideration these important requests, such as the one from the Judicial Branch, but one thing is clear: the need for funding far outpaces what Maine has,” Trundy wrote in an email.

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