The public wants remote hearings to continue when COVID-19 subsides, according to the National Center for State Courts’ (NCSC) “State of the State Courts” survey.
And, while respondents said public trust in the courts and other institutions is waning, they indicated that courts could build trust by expanding online resources and remote options, which can help address core inequities in the justice system.
The annual survey of public opinion polled 1,000 registered voters using a mixture of telephone interviews and online surveys between October 12-16, 2021.
“We have been measuring public attitudes toward state courts for the NCSC since 2012, and on almost all of our core tracking measures of state court performance and attributes, this year’s survey represents the lowest marks we have seen in those nine years,” research firm GBAO said.
However, while public confidence dropped, the report says respondents broadly supported many court initiatives, like remote hearings, indicating that their attitudes could be related to larger declines in public trust across the country rather than direct experience with the courts.
The demand for remote hearings
Three-in-four respondents said the pandemic has negatively affected state courts’ ability “to deliver justice and meet the needs of (STATE) residents in a fair and timely manner.” That said, they seem to appreciate the flexibility of remote services brought about by the pandemic.
A majority of respondents (52%) said they believe that courts should continue to hold hearings by video because it allows them to hear more cases and resolve cases more quickly, and makes it easier for people to participate without having to travel to a courthouse, take time off of work, and find childcare.
These obstacles have disproportionately impacted communities of color, according to the survey. Thirty-eight percent of Black respondents and 37% of Latino respondents said it’s difficult to find childcare when they need to go to the courthouse, compared to 17% of white respondents.
Moreover, 58% of Latino respondents cited getting time off from work or school as an obstacle to making it to the courthouse, compared to 43% of Black respondents and 37% of white respondents.
Importantly, the overwhelming majority of respondents (88%) reported having internet service at home, increasing the potential for remote appearances and serving on a jury for a remote trial.
Trust in the courts
Public trust in the courts follows general sentiment over the last several months, which has demonstrated declining confidence in the direction of the country and virtually all of its institutions.
However, the report says the deterioration of public confidence in the court system is a real threat. While confidence in government institutions was down across the board in 2021, trust in state court systems was down significantly, by 6%, second only to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Public approval differed some demographically. In 2021, 46% of white respondents rated the courts’ performance as excellent/good, compared to 44% of Latino respondents, and just 35% of Black respondents.
When asked how well state courts were doing in terms of a series of attributes, most of the characteristics – which included “fair and impartial,” “provide equal justice to all,” and “innovative” – dropped from two years ago. “Hard working” was the only attribute that was ranked the same in 2019 and 2021.
State courts ranked lowest on innovation, leaving room for the continued adoption of technology.
The complete survey results and analysis can be found on the NCSC’s website.
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