Highland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rocky Coss
Highland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rocky Coss
Along with taking steps to implement improved technology locally, a Highland County judge has been selected by the Ohio Supreme Court to lead a task force studying the use of technology in courts across Ohio — both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Highland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rocky Coss was appointed as chair of the Improving Court Operations Using Remote Technology (iCOURT) Task Force. As reported by Anne Yeager of Court News Ohio in September, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor created the task force to “identify best practices to be retained by courts in the post-pandemic era and ways their experiences will allow for the continuing use of technology to improve access to justice.”

Judge Coss told The Highland County Press he was appointed to the task force in September, then later named chair of the group of 25 voting members assigned to make recommendations to the Ohio Supreme Court.

“In the future, we think one of the results of this pandemic and its effect on courts is we’ll see much greater use of technology,” Coss said.

Highland County has been using a video conferencing system during the pandemic, but they were doing so even before COVID-19 placed limits on courts. Coss said the Supreme Court was “surprised” to learn how much has been implemented locally already.

“When they asked my experience, they were surprised for a small county we’d done so much,” Coss said. “Then I got called back, and the Chief Justice said they want me to be chair. We have people from bigger courts. but it’s a nice sampling, and it gives me the chance to be the advocate for smaller courts. I’m really enjoying it.”

The iCOURT Task Force includes “judges, attorneys, prosecutors and court staff” from across the state, according to Yeager. The complete roster, which can be viewed at: https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/Boards/iCourt/roster.pdf, also includes Justice R. Patrick DeWine as an ex officio member.

“One of the goals obviously is to try to develop some recommendations, for first of all identifying how technology has been used so far, what everyone’s experience is and implementing best practices and technologies,” Coss said of the task force. “We’re then looking at changes that might need to be made to statutes as well as Supreme Court rules to allow further use of technology in court proceedings while protecting procedural due process and rights of parties, particularly in criminal cases.”

Last Friday, thousands of individuals received a survey from the task force as one of the first steps the group is taking. The survey, which Yeager wrote is “being sent to lawyers, judges, retired assigned judges, magistrates, court administrators, clerks, probation officers, court reporters, interpreters, mediators, guardians ad litem (GALs), victim advocates and litigants,” is intended to gather feedback on the use of technology in courts from various perspectives.

“The survey is looking at how much technology is being used and how it’s being used and what everyone’s experiences have been,” Coss said. “It’s asking questions about confidence and satisfaction in what’s being used so far and identifying potential problems and issues, both logistical and procedural/legal.

“We’re hoping to get that all back within two to three weeks so the data can be analyzed, and we’re hoping to have tens of thousands of responses.”

The iCOURT task force intends to discuss the findings at their next meeting in December, Coss said, once Supreme Court data analysts evaluate the survey results.

“Once we have the survey back and all this information, we can start digging into what people have found that’s been useful or not useful,” Coss said. “What kind of measures can we come up with to recommend as best practices for courts and participants? How will they protect procedural and legal rights of parties and others involved and promote efficiency?”

The complete task force has only had one meeting thus far, although the subcommittees have met separately as well. Along with the survey committee, subcommittees are assigned to consider criminal cases, civil and domestic cases, probate/juvenile cases and court operations.

“The results of that survey will be used by those subcommittees to work on their areas and make recommendations,” Coss said.

As chair, Coss said that he has been participating in as many meetings as possible since the task force was formed.

“Our report is due next June, so it’s been pretty intense here in the past five or six weeks,” the judge said. “I try to sit in on as many subcommittee meetings as possible.

“The vice chair and I are both doing that to keep current with what’s going on, though we do get analysis of meetings pretty quickly.”

According to Yeager, as of September, “courts in 87 of Ohio’s 88 counties are using $6 million in equipment and software purchased since March to keep their operations open during the pandemic. Chief Justice O’Connor made the funds available from the Court’s budget on an emergency basis.” This increased dependence on technology prompted the task force’s formation, but Judge Coss said the group is considering how remote technology can, and should, be used moving forward even after the pandemic.

“Some of the big things we’re looking at are how can we keep courts functioning and providing access to justice for everyone?” he said. “Not just parties involved, but also for the public, to make sure the public is being protected through court cases — parties, litigants, witnesses, jurors and so on.”

For example, Coss said that Highland County has not yet had a jury trial during the pandemic, but remote technology has been utilized in other parts of the country for trials, including holding a jury trial remotely and seating jurors via Zoom or similar technology.

Locally, Coss said they are weighing their options to ensure the safety of everyone in the courtroom. There have already been dividers and shields installed in the Common Pleas Courtroom and markers placed for six-foot spacing, but Coss said they may implement other precautions, such as dividing jurors into different rooms to reduce the number of people in the courtroom.

For other hearings, such as sentencing and pretrials, Coss said his court has been using remote technology as much as possible.

“I did two Zoom hearings [Monday] morning, actually,” Coss said. “We are still dealing with some technical issues, as far as getting everyone hooked up.”

On Oct. 14, Highland County commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and David Daniels, auditor Bill Fawley and prosecutor Anneka Collins authorized a $59,548.89 request from Coss for an upgraded video recording system at the court, using CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funds. The judge said the upgrade will help expand their use of technology in the courtroom even further, along with providing the ability to video-record all hearings.

“The recording will go to video/audio for everything and have a hub to make it easier to connect to all online platforms,” Coss said. “It will make it easier for us to record. Right now we have to have a laptop playing Zoom, and we’re capturing audio recording but wouldn’t be able to capture video.

“With our recording system, it’s set up to be a video arraignment system, and you have to have specific software to connect. If other counties don’t have the same recording system, it’s more difficult to be compatible with them.”

Coss has also encouraged local attorneys to use the court’s technology to limit exposure to their clients, communicating with local inmates virtually in a secure system.

“I’ve done some sentencings through the jail, and attorneys have been working with that, too,” he said. “We had the one COVID case in the jail, and so far that’s the only one, but we’re really careful about cutting down on times prisoners are brought here.”

Moving forward, Coss said, “there are a lot of possibilities.”

“We’ve already had at least two mediations conducted by Zoom here, for domestic relations,” Coss said. “We’ve done some civil and criminal Zoom hearings and also just using [the system] we have now.

“We’ve been doing lot of things, trying to deal with the situation. I’ve already picked up a lot of tips at some of these [task force] meetings, seeing all the different ways courts are using technology.”

Both in Highland County and throughout the state, Coss said continued use of remote technology also “has the potential to save a lot of money.”

“I know using our video arraignment system for judiciary hearings in prisons, we’ve saved tens of thousands of dollars every year,” he said. “The bailiff told me we’ve done 90 video hearings since September alone. Before, we were averaging 300 or so a year, so we’ve had a real big increase, and that doesn’t include Zoom hearings.

“The emphasis and intention is doing as much as possible in this court for video, unless there’s a really good reason to bring them up.”

Coss is also coordinating efforts with other public officials, with Sheriff Donnie Barrera looking into purchasing a laptop for inmates to video conference with their attorneys and Clerk of Courts Ike Hodson researching a possible e-filing system to reduce traffic flow in the clerk’s office.

“Other courts are doing that, and that’s the thing — just in my not quite two months of service, I’ve learned a lot,” Coss said. “I think that’s one of the advantages of participating. Even though it takes work, it’s something that benefits me and hopefully technology in the county, where I can bring other ideas of improvements.”

To read Yeager’s coverage of the iCOURT Task Force, go to: http://www.courtnewsohio.gov/happening/2020/icourtSurvey_111020.asp and http://www.courtnewsohio.gov/happening/2020/iCourtTF_091120.asp.