JUDGING BY SKYPE

I’ll bet you didn’t know your Washington Supreme Court was the first high court in the world to allow gavel-to-gavel TV coverage of all oral arguments and other hearings in its courtroom.  That happened about 18 years ago when we started televising our proceeding live on TV.   There may be others now although I don’t know of any.  The U.S. Supreme Court continues to be quite shy of any electronic media in its courtroom.  Again, I am sure, we have accomplished another first.

When I was having my chemotherapy and twice a day radiation treatments at the University of Washington Medical Center in June and July (see my last blog entry), I fully participated in court hearings by Skype.  I wanted to continue to work.  For some of us, work is therapy.  I requested to participate by Skype, something very novel for courts and judges.  It is something that hadn’t been done before so far as any of us knew.  To their enormous credit, my colleagues and the court staff put their heads together and worked on making it happen.  So did my doctors by being very flexible on treatment times on court hearing days.

A television was set up in the courtroom on the bench where we justices sit so the lawyers and audience could see me.  But I was at home in Issaquah in a robe in front of a webcam.  I was able to hear and see the audience, lawyers, and my fellow justices on TVW’s live webcast of the proceedings.  This likely would not have been possible if our courtroom was not already wired for live TV coverage.  Cameras in the courtroom are sound activated so that an active camera is always on the speaker.  Chief Justice Madsen explained to the audience at the outset of each hearing how I was going to participate and that I would participate fully.  Because my speech is impaired, I instant messaged my questions to Justice Stephens or Justice Fairhurst who asked them for me explaining that it was my question.

We hear two cases in the morning and then conference those cases immediately after hearing the second case.  By “conferencing” I mean we deliberate on how the case is going to be decided, on what issues and principles, and decide who is going to write for the majority and for the dissent.  We hear two more cases in the afternoon and conference those cases immediately after the second case is heard.  During these conferences I could see all of my colleagues and they me.  They are used to my speech and I communicated with them verbally.  Even my fellow justices have some difficulty understanding me and miss words so as a back up I could have used instant messages and they could have read my words on a large TV.

Now this may sound simple but equipment had to be brought in and set up and in some cases wired, microphones activated or muted at just the right time to avoid feedback, and the equipment had to be turned off and on at just the right time.  Everybody got Skype accounts, we practiced, and then everything was tested every morning before we started.  During practice before actually using the procedure, we discovered we were dropping the Skype signal occasionally in the courtroom so the courtroom Wi-Fi was boosted for a stronger signal.  We encountered no signal problems during actual hearings.  All parties, though their counsel, were notified weeks in advance of the procedure.  No one objected but if they had, their hearing would have been continued a couple of months so I could attend in person.

Oh, yeah, I completed my treatment July 15.  It took until about the first of August before I started to feel better and then I began feeling better and stronger every day.  The nausea and pain are largely gone.  I know from past experience that it takes a full year to recover fully from the chemotherapy and radiation treatments.   I was able to make a three-day Harley ride the end of August.  I continue to have difficulty with swallowing and speech but otherwise feel good.  I continue to take most of my nutrition through a feeding tube but am hopeful that will improve.   I will have some scans in October and know more then, but right now I feel good about my prognosis.

It was no small task but we pulled it off and I am immensely grateful to my fellow justices and court staff for permitting me to fulfill the constitutional duties for which you elected me.