In one of the most important voting-rights cases Florida has seen in years, a video trial that began yesterday was a lot like a Zoom call with your less-than-tech-savvy relatives: full of technical glitches and audio problems.
Yesterday began the trial for Jones v. DeSantis, a federal case challenging the State of Florida on its legal interpretation of Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative. The trial, expected to last two weeks, is being held via video conference because of COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders.
After Florida voters passed the amendment in 2018, the Republican-controlled state Legislature passed a measure that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law requiring felons to pay all fees, fines, and restitution before their voting rights could be restored. The plaintiffs in the federal case, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, claim that stipulation is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle wanted the trial to begin with plenty of time before the November election. The problem is, conditions in a virtual trial are hardly ideal. Multiple times yesterday, Hinkle had to pause the proceedings because someone's mike was giving feedback, someone's screen had frozen, or the court reporter could not hear what a witness was saying.
Latoya Moreland, a disabled mother of four who was convicted of a felony in 2011, told her story of being unable to vote because she unknowingly owed legal fees after serving her sentence. Unfortunately, several times during her testimony, the court had to ask her to speak up and repeat herself because her connection was so garbled.
At one point, testimony from an expert witness was delayed for almost ten minutes because of audio issues.
"Can everyone mute? I'm getting feedback from someone," Hinkle said while one of the attorneys unsuccessfully tried multiple times to begin questioning Traci Burch, a political science professor and researcher at Northwestern University.
Later in Burch's testimony, one of the defense attorneys was booted from the call "for about a minute" and missed some of what the witness said.
During an entire portion of another expert's testimony, the witness could not see the documents placed onscreen for him to read. The attorney for the plaintiffs said she had highlighted portions on the screen to discuss, but the witness said his screen was too pixelated to read even after refreshing the page. Luckily, he had a printed version of the documents in front of him.
And the court reporter had to ask David A. Smith, a voting-rights expert from the University of Florida, to repeat himself after some of his testimony was cut off.
"Who knows what I was saying," Smith joked.
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As WLRN reporter Danny Rivero pointed out, Hinkle was as much an IT manager as he was a federal judge during the trial:
Kind of crazy listening to a senior federal judge conduct a trial while doubling as IT manager, helping troubleshoot microphone issues so they can get a clear feed.— Danny Rivero (@TooMuchMe) April 27, 2020
There were numerous other examples of virtual snafus during the first day of the trial: attorneys accidentally muting themselves when they were supposed to respond to the judge, attorneys accidentally unmuting themselves during the lunch break, and an IT assistant for the court having to join the call after some participants were disconnected.
With any luck, the court will figure out how to keep video conference problems to a minimum before the next stage of the trial.