COA hears first virtual argument with minor technical hiccups

Although they appeared to be sitting side-by-side per usual, the three appellate judges hearing the Indiana Court of Appeals’ first-ever remote oral arguments on Thursday were certainly far apart.

Tuning in from their respective quarantine locations, Judges Melissa May, Terry Crone and Rudolph Pyle III donned their black robes while a backdrop of a courtroom appeared behind them.

Instead of facing each other from the bench and podium, the participants of the argument faced their screens, which displayed several small boxes containing the three judges, two attorneys and a timer to keep everything on track. The argument, though remote, was livestreamed as usual on the appellate court’s website.

After being gaveled in, presiding Judge Melissa May welcomed the parties to the Indiana Court of Appeals’ first Zoom argument in the case of Marion County Circuit Court v. Dustin King, 19A-MI-1536. The case was heard just one week after the Indiana Supreme Court took a historic step by hearing oral arguments via videoconference May 14.

The move to Zoom comes in response to social distancing precautions taken due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In the case before the appellate court, Dustin King, who is deaf brought claims against the Marion Circuit Court after his motion was denied for an American Sign Language interpreter to be appointed and present at a family law mediation he attended. He had also requested the interpreter be present at the circuit court’s expense.

Attorneys Benjamin Jones and Andrea Ciobanu argued as counsel for the Marion Circuit Court and King, respectively.

On appeal, the Marion Circuit Court contested the denial of its motion to dismiss King’s claims against it under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Jones specifically argued for a reversal on the grounds that King’s claims were barred by res judicata based on earlier decisions from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed King’s suit in August 2017.

Similar to the Indiana Supreme Court’s first remote argument, the appellate judges sat in order of seniority, with Judge May kicking off the questioning. After each judge had a chance to question Jones during his allotted time, the attorney concluded with no technological issues and his image was swapped out to display Ciobanu, who appeared to be arguing from home.

Departing from the order used when questioning Jones, however, Judge Crone started things off with Ciobanu by jumping in to ask her the first question. After Crone held the majority of the questioning time for Ciobanu, judges May and Pyle began speaking at the same time before May ultimately turned over the questioning to Pyle.

Toward the end of her time before the judges, Ciobanu’s audio began cutting out and became distorted, but she was able to finish her argument with just enough clarity to be understood.

Another small technical glitch took place on rebuttal when Jones began speaking into a muted microphone. The four-minute timer had to be paused for a few seconds to resolve the silence on Jones’ end, then was restarted once the judges could hear him again.

At the end of Jones’ time, May wrapped up the unprecedented argument by thanking both parties for their advocacy in the appellate court’s first Zoom proceeding, and the gavel was sounded.

Two more remote oral arguments are scheduled for the appellate court on May 22 and June 9.

Thursday’s recorded oral argument can be viewed here.

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