This article originally appeared in the May issue of Texas Town & City, published by the Texas Municipal League.
PHOTO #1: Municipal Court staff pose for a photo with the Tyler Excellence Award that the court received in 2021 for its remote services.
During the spring of 2020, as a mysterious new virus forced local governments to suspend or modify their services, City of Victoria Municipal Court Judge Vanessa Heinold was sure of one thing: She didn’t want the justice system to be another source of stress for residents burdened by COVID-19.
“During this situation, people have lists of worries that they need to prioritize, like shelter, security, food and medicine,” Heinold said in an April 2020 news release. “I don’t want Municipal Court fines to be another item on that list along with life-and-death issues.”
The court’s history of compassionate justice goes back to well before the pandemic. As the head of a local court that mostly deals with traffic tickets and other minor offenses, Heinold knows firsthand that there are those who can pay a ticket and be done with it and those whose small mistakes snowball into chronic struggles. Generally, the difference boils down to factors outside of a person’s control: they can’t pay the fine, they can’t take the time to come to court or they don’t have the transportation to get there.
Since becoming Victoria’s Municipal Court judge in 2016, Heinold has strived to implement policies that improve access to justice. One such policy was the addition of open court dockets, which let defendants come in and discuss their options without having to worry about being arrested.
“Previously, someone with overdue payments would have had to make a lump-sum payment before seeing the judge,” Heinold explained. “I wanted to get away from that pay-to-play system and help people find solutions regardless of their financial difficulties.”
This emphasis of resolution over arrest was further solidified in 2018 when Victoria declined to participate in the Texas Warrant Roundup, a program that involves seeking out and arresting people with outstanding warrants. Instead, the court established Warrant Resolution Month, scheduling extra dockets to encourage defendants to come to court.
That same year, the court began scheduling dockets on the weekends and after working hours, creating an extra level of accessibility for people with demanding work obligations. But what about those who have trouble coming to the court in the first place? Some defendants don’t have access to reliable transportation, and others don’t live in Victoria at all; they might have received a speeding ticket while passing through, only to be summoned to an in-person court appearance hours away.
To solve this problem, court officials met with the City’s IT department to discuss the idea of hosting a virtual docket, perhaps through videoconferencing. They weighed multiple different platforms, including Webex, GoToMeeting and Microsoft Teams.
At last, the court found a platform that fit all of their needs: a user-friendly interface, robust call volume support and the ability to host breakout sessions and chatrooms. So, the court began making preparations to host virtual dockets through a little-known videoconferencing platform known as Zoom.
E-court’s in session
PHOTO #2: A computer in the municipal courtroom is connected to a virtual court session through Zoom. Citizens without internet access were allowed to come to court to use the computer if necessary.
PHOTO #3: A tutorial video produced by the City of Victoria Communications & Public Affairs demonstrates how to join a virtual court session on a cellphone.
When COVID-19 appeared in the Victoria Crossroads region in March 2020, the discussions about virtual dockets shifted overnight from luxury to necessity.
“We hit the ground running,” said Municipal Court Administrator Tiffany Totah. “We already had the Zoom account in the budget, and we’d been working through how to use it. So when everything started closing in March, we said, ‘Okay, Zoom it is.’”
The transition went as smoothly as anyone could have wanted. On Saturday, March 21, all City of Victoria offices closed to the public. The court hosted its first virtual docket two days later.
It was a time when everyone was struggling to conduct their day-to-day affairs in a new way. To help soften the learning curve, the court reached out to the City’s Communications & Public Affairs department, which produced a video tutorial that thoroughly explained how to join an e-court docket, chat with court staff and navigate the breakout rooms to speak with prosecutors.
As the twice-weekly virtual sessions became the new normal, court officials started getting feedback that echoed public sentiment about countless other newfangled remote services: It wasn’t what they were used to, but it was actually better in some ways.
“For the first time, people could get on their phones on their lunch break and attend a docket without having to take off work or drive across town,” Heinold said. “We knew that we were starting something that would continue in the future because of how convenient it was.”
Other courts take notice
PHOTO #4: Municipal Court Administrator Tiffany Totah, right, accepts the Texas Court Clerks Association’s Extraordinary Achievement Award from TCCA President Landra Solansky in 2021.
With courts across the nation experiencing the same challenges, the Victoria Municipal Court began getting messages from other court officials, asking: How do we do what you’re doing?
Soon, Totah was hosting training sessions for court officials in Texas and out of state, outlining best practices and sharing forms and documentation used for the e-court dockets. Eventually, Victoria’s policies would serve as a model for courts in many other cities, including larger communities like Fort Worth and Sugar Land.
Totah’s leadership caught the attention of the Texas Court Clerks Association, which honored her in October 2020 with the Distinguished Service Award and in November 2021 with the even more prestigious Extraordinary Achievement Award.
Totah “has served as a role model for all municipal courts through the pandemic,” according to the commendation that was presented at the Extraordinary Achievement Award ceremony. “Her innovation and leadership skills were an inspiration.”
In 2021, the Victoria Municipal Court brought its collaborative innovation to the next level as a member of the National Center for State Courts’ Implementation Lab initiative. The Victoria court applied and was chosen to serve in the Remote & Virtual Hearings lab, meeting monthly with a small group of court officials from around the country to discuss policies and procedures, what works and what doesn’t. Now that the program has ended, the cohort’s findings are available to courts everywhere looking to fine-tune their own virtual programs.
Innovation beyond the Zoom call
PHOTO #5: The Municipal Court’s webpage includes a chatbox that lets visitors chat with court staff.
PHOTO #6: Citizens who need to drop off payments or documentation after hours may do so using the Municipal Court dropbox.
Other court functions had to shift to a remote format during the pandemic as well. Fortunately, just as with the new types of dockets, the switch to accessibility had already started.
“Our residents have been able to look up their cases online since 2013,” Totah said. “We’ve had some of our online services for years, and we were already expanding our use of text notifications as well. Some of our citizens find it easier to access services online or by phone, so we wanted to make it more convenient for those people.”
Court officials had been looking into other services at residents’ request, and some of those came to fruition during the pandemic: the ability to resolve cases and sign up for driver’s safety courses online, the ability to make payments over the phone, an online chatbox to help residents connect with court clerks.
“One of the benefits of the chatbox is that we can see what page of the website residents are visiting when they message us about a specific service,” Totah said. “We’re planning to take that information into account as we make changes to our webpage.”
In 2021, the court’s innovative services received national recognition by way of Tyler Technologies’ Tyler Excellence Award. The court’s use of Tyler Technologies’ Incode software for multiple remote services caused it to be selected from about 1,000 Incode users nationwide.
And the court introduced another useful if low-tech innovation, too: Residents can now drop off payments and documents after hours using the drop box at the entrance to the court building.
“People used to try and slide their payments between our doors, and we would come in and find envelopes lying on the ground,” Totah said. “So we knew that was something people wanted.”
Accessibility after COVID-19
PHOTO #7: Municipal Court Judge Vanessa Heinold, middle, visits with members of the public during the court’s first Java with the Judge event in 2020.
PHOTO #8: A Zoom video display is projected in the municipal courtroom, allowing for a hybrid court session with remote and in-person attendance.
Late in 2020, with some pandemic restrictions being lifted, Heinold scheduled an event she’d been planning for a while: “Java with the Judge,” a meet-and-greet over coffee and muffins. A courtyard location made for easy social distancing, and the informal setup provided an ideal opportunity for residents to ask questions and learn more about the Municipal Court and about Heinold and Totah.
“When people share a cup of coffee, they find that they have a lot of things in common,” Heinold said.
As pandemic-era practices fade, some things have stayed the same. Totah is still hosting training courses to help other court officials be the best they can be. One of the topics she taught this year was, fittingly, “Access to Justice Beyond the Courtroom Walls.”
As for the Zoom dockets, they’ve permanently shifted to a hybrid model. Now, whatever barrier residents may be facing—whether it’s a lack of transportation or a lack of an internet connection—they can come to court in whatever format suits them best.
All in all, the return to in-person interactions hasn’t changed the court’s goal of improving accessibility; it’s simply given officials more tools to meet that goal. On April 4, the court hosted its first-ever “outreach docket” at the local Salvation Army shelter. Traditional hearings and virtual dockets are equally out of reach for Victoria’s most vulnerable residents, so Heinold has resolved to go where she’s needed, armed with a laptop, and help residents get back on the right path in whatever way she can.
After all, her mission of improving access to justice wasn’t derailed by the pandemic, and it’s not going to stop anytime soon.