May 2021 Cover Story - Virtual Technology Solutions Transcend the Brick and Mortar Courthouse


As the pandemic is still rampant, I felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with the leadership of Orange County Superior Court about the work they have done this past year, and to better understand how the past year’s changes will affect the Court’s future.

Kirk H. Nakamura, Presiding Judge 2018-2020, and  current Presiding Judge Erick L. Larsh, Court Executive Officer David Yamasaki, Chief Operations Officer Adriaan Ayers, and Chief Information Officer Brett Howard came together virtually and gave their perspectives. The topics we dis­cussed included the challenges of adjusting quickly to the events of 2020 and what’s ahead in 2021, including the Court’s increasing reliance on predictive data analysis and technology solutions. What follows is a summary of our meeting.


By January, the Orange County Superior Court had completed over 150 Criminal and Civil jury trials and was processing almost all aspects of pre-COVID-19 business. How did it happen?

Judge Kirk Nakamura: COVID-19 brought on many challenges to our community and our Court, but also presented a silver lining. We were in that fortunate situation of having talented personnel in diverse and critical areas which we would desperately need when the pandemic struck. Because of this, when we needed to pivot to address the crisis, we were able to make the proverbial lemonade when the outbreak, the lemons, suddenly was brought upon us.


How did you imagine and structure the ultimate re-opening of the Court?

David Yamasaki: Let me make this very clear from the get-go, the day—actually, the moment—we were ordered to shut our doors by the Governor of California on March 17, 2020, we gathered and began to plan, and plot, and work to reopen our doors to the public we serve.

We realized that COVID-19 was going to force everyone to do business differently. In our case, our culture prepared us to respond with agility. For the last five years, we’ve been working on the digital transformation of the Court—Civil and Family Law e-filing, remote appearances in numerous case types, and an increased ability for court users to take care of their business online for tasks such as addressing a traffic ticket or setting up a payment plan.

This effort proved extremely helpful. It gave us increased capacity and ability to adapt quickly to the crisis which forced us to move nearly all our business to an online or remote format. We had technology platforms in place that allowed us to respond quickly. We had data analytics systems in place
giving us the ability to determine which changes were needed by the public and which proposed changes needed more work. Because of heavy reliance on data analytics we were able to make decisions in real time, even as the data were being gathered.

Presiding Judge Erick Larsh: All these elements, however, would not have been enough without the collaboration and patience of the Bar Association, PD’s Office, DA’s Office, Sheriff’s Office, and many
others. Their willingness to engage with us in our planning efforts and their communication within their offices and membership was key in making sure that plans rolled out as they were intended.

This was true, not only on the criminal side, but across all litigation types; we worked very closely with our justice partners. They were all at the table helping us plan a way out of the closure.

What was the first and biggest challenge on the way to reopen the Court?

Adriaan Ayers: From an operations standpoint, the first challenge was finding ways to pick up where we left off with limited resources on hand, without spending too much time accumulating backlogs, but also prioritizing what needed to be done now versus what could be done later. One of our first priorities was making sure that criminal arraignments, preliminary hearings, and trials were processed within the constitutionally mandated time frames. We had to provide for remote appearances for attorneys and defendants and provide for public access for defendants’ families, as well as the media and the public.

Brett Howard: Public access to our court proceedings was an immediate need. After considering a number of options, we decided that installing cameras in every active courtroom was the best way to meet this requirement. Within weeks we had over 100 courtrooms livestreaming their proceedings on our website.

Support for remote appearances also presented several big challenges. It was necessary for defendants at the jail to appear remotely and it took some time before we were able to get all parties communicating smoothly from various locations over the same platform. Fortunately, we had existing technology in place. We were able to start remote appearances from the jail immediately, honing the process over the next few weeks.

Ayers: I can’t overemphasize the importance of the collaboration between the Judicial Officers, Court staff, and our stakeholders and partners in our success. We were able to ensure that every move we made was in lockstep with our partners. Here’s one example: in Juvenile, the Court implemented a justice partner collaboration portal that allows justice partners and the Court to share case documents. Justice partners are now able to remotely and securely upload Juvenile case documents to the portal with only the Court and the justice partners having access to those documents. There is also a collaboration area where documents can be shared amongst justice partners and the Court. This enables our Juvenile Courts to continue working their full caseload, while permitting all parties to file and appear for matters remotely. Without buy-in from all parties, such progress could not have happened.

As May 2020 rolled around, you began jury trials. That must have been a logistical nightmare. How did you proceed?

Ayers: We resumed in a very cautious yet deliberate way. We didn’t just open the doors and invite everyone in our courthouses. Initially, policies, procedures, and protocols were put in place for the Court to function in a safe way—from plexiglass in the courtrooms to Administrative Orders requiring all court employees, members of the public, and judicial officers to wear masks at all times.

Even before we were ready to begin jury trials, we called in jury panels over the course of several days in order to determine how many jurors would actually appear, despite the pandemic. We did not want to begin setting jury trials only to have no jurors appear.

Once we had a sense of the appearance rate, we began looking into where and how we could accommodate the jurors in a safe, socially distanced manner. We inquired, and traveled to a number of off-site venues, before deciding on an approach that involved calling smaller panels on-site, staggering their call-in times, and breaking them out into a number of different rooms. With our mobile juror check-in application, we already had a touchless check-in system in place, giving jurors an additional level of comfort that we could follow CDC guidelines. Fortunately, it worked out well and we’ve come close to eliminating our Criminal jury trial backlog that accumulated during the closure and have safely completed over 125 Criminal jury trials and more than twenty Civil jury trials.

Is there a “how-to” technology road map to this success?

Ayers: We’ve attempted to document our plans along the way, although the documentation was less critical than getting these ideas implemented. Our success really boils down to our Court’s priorities and the amazing people we are so fortunate to work with. For years this Court has made technology a high priority, and we budget and staff accordingly. Long before COVID-19 we made the investment in personnel that enable us to move quickly and creatively without having to wait on outside vendors.

Howard: A good example of this is how Family Court implemented an eSubmission process where participants in Family Law cases were able to submit their evidence electronically. By creating an email system connecting the parties, the cases, and the judges who are hearing them, participants could email evidence to a specified Family Law email address, include the case number and courtroom number in the email and the documents would be automatically routed to the courtroom staff prior to the hearing. There is no longer a need to physically go to court to present evidence, and that was a big deal to all the litigants and attorneys involved in Family Law matters, which are now, with limited exceptions, heard remotely.

Fortunately for us, when the crisis started, we had multiple innovative projects already in progress that were scheduled for completion in Summer 2020. These projects were started prior to COVID-19, but the timing worked out well. After COVID-19 hit, we were able to launch these digital services through the court’s website and provide the public with more ways to interact with the court remotely.

For example, pre-COVID-19, we were working on a Mobile Juror Check-In application that enables jurors to check in on their smart phone when they arrive at the Court for jury duty without long lines or face-to-face check-ins. While most of this work was completed prior to COVID-19, it was certainly nice to be able to tell our public that we were now offering a touchless check-in for jurors.

Another quick win was a scheduling application that we developed for our website. Because of social distancing needs, visitors to the court have to schedule an appointment to come into the Court for services. With the scheduling application, it’s very easy to schedule an appointment to appear for services in person or remotely, and once again, scheduling can be done quickly on a smart phone or other device.

When time came to resume Traffic cases, we had a recently released Court User Portal in place that allowed us to make changes quickly to support the process of online payments. We also created a mobile app that supports Self-Help Services and payment of Civil case fees.

Ayers: As Brett (Howard) mentioned, our ability to communicate via our website was key. I think the main beneficiaries of the information on the website are members of the public and the lawyers representing them. The documentation on our public website guides them through the processes of remote hearings or how to access Court services in COVID-19 times. Literally, everything has changed in some way, big or small. So, our website is their way, essentially,
to know how to conduct business in the current state of the Court.

Howard: It is amazing how complete it is; you just click through the steps and—boom—you are there: appearing at your hearing, paying your traffic ticket, or whatever else you need. This benefits the public and relieves Court staff from having to answer calls because the website does such a good, comprehensive job of communicating the necessary information.

I need to stress, of course, that our work on technology innovation was and is a collective effort with the other departments at the court. We are all focused on the same goal of providing better services to the public.


COVID-19 seems to have changed the Court’s staffing and workspace patterns and habits. How did the Court respond to this challenge?

Ayers: A portion of our staff is working remotely and using technology in a telework setting. But it was the response of the courtroom clerks and courtroom attendants that has been key to a successful reopening of our Court to litigants. Courtroom staff now have livestreaming responsibilities and remote hearing responsibilities that never existed in pre-COVID-19 times.

I think our electronic court records were also of critical importance. Having electronic records allows Court personnel and our Judicial Officers to work from anywhere. We are able to socially distance in a safe way because everybody has remote and simultaneous access to the Court’s records.

Overall, the staff available is smaller because of COVID-19-related issues. We are managing with fewer resources, which is an impressive testament to the Judicial Officers and the staff of our Court.


Let’s look forward two years from today: How will you leverage your current successes, moving forward?

Ayers: I think that knowing what we know now, we can use our space and resources differently. This may help us do some other really positive things we have not been able to do because we have been limited by capacity in our buildings or the structures and processes of the past.

Howard: I completely agree. We have an amazing opportunity to continue to innovate and move the Court forward based on the lessons we’ve learned during this crisis. Two years from now, the public will interact with the court even more with digital and remote services. We will be able to serve the public in the ways that are most convenient to them.

Ayers: For my part, doing more with less comes to mind. We are always expected to do more with less, but in this case, we had no choice. We had to be creative, not only because of budget cuts, but also because of staff shortages caused by COVID-19. What we’ve come to realize is that the brick and mortar courthouses are no longer required for some court hearings and services; a lot can be done in a virtual setting.

Self-Help Services is a great example. Prior to COVID-19, Self-Help Services were physically located in each one of the Justice Centers and supported by thirty-seven full-time positions. Services included answering legal procedural questions, providing forms/packets, document reviews, and conducting various workshops. Most of these were done in person, with limited phone and email availability. As a result of COVID-19, Self-Help Services has shifted to a remote service model and all personnel have been reassigned to internal Legal Teams as well as a Hotline. This new model promotes more individualized services without the public needing to come to our Justice Centers. Our services now are primarily provided remotely by video conferencing, telephone, and email.

The new Hotline centralizes all calls to one call center where self-represented
litigants are provided information, procedural assistance, forms/packets, and referrals to specialized Legal Teams for more in-depth services. The Legal Teams provide document reviews and remote workshops using video conferencing and other technologies. This new model is supported by fewer employees and is a safe method for litigants to continue accessing self-help services in a no-contact manner. As a bonus, we were able to reduce the unit by eight positions, saving the Court over $800,000.

Judge Larsh: The new model also minimizes the most common costs to the public in obtaining such services, including time off from work, childcare, transportation, parking, going through security, and standing in line. This was one area we didn’t let the crisis of a global pandemic go to waste.

Yamasaki: The reality is that without data and data analytics we wouldn’t even been able to pinpoint where to start or how to proceed. It really helped us chart a path to reopening and strategize how to address our backlogs. Having access to data very quickly allows us to identify how to allocate our resources and which demands require immediate attention, ensuring that our priorities were addressed in the right order.

We used data in real time to determine the impact of our policy decisions and we were able to make adjustments quickly, saving resources and time. Otherwise it would have been an effort of trial and error!



The Court’s commitment to the advancement of justice using technology did not go unnoticed. In February 2021, the Orange County Superior Court was honored by the National Association for Court Management (NACM) and Court Information Technology Officers Consortium (CITOC) with three prestigious 2020 NACM/CITOC Technology Awards. The Court was recognized for promoting innovative technology solutions in: (1) Court Management: Data Management, Analytics, and Visualization: Court Analytics Virtual Environment (CAVE); (2) Digital Courts—Courts to Citizens: Orange County Superior Court User Portal (CUP); and (3) Court Technology: Disaster Recovery: Cloud-Based Disaster Recovery.


Alan J. Crivaro is a criminal defense lawyer in Newport Beach. He can be reached at acrivarolaw@hotmail.com.