Pandemic Reflections: Looking Beyond Our Courtrooms


By Hon. Stacie F. Beckerman, U.S. Magistrate Judge

In December 2019, I informed a pregnant defendant (“G”) at her arraignment that I was detaining her pending trial. She fainted. The deputy U.S. Marshal called 911, and G was rushed to the hospital. She was treated and released, and at the continued hearing, I stood my ground. However, a few months later, her baby was born suffering from complications, and I released G from custody to nurse her daughter to health while housed in a structured program.

Soon G had demonstrated that she was not going to run, and I allowed her to return home to her family, but with the requirement that she meet with me every few weeks as part of our Court Assisted Pretrial Supervision (“CAPS”) program. Unfortunately, this new release plan coincided with the arrival of COVID-19, and I conducted the hearings by phone for several months. G would report on her progress in the services we were able to offer her while on pretrial release, and her baby’s milestones. I sometimes had trouble hearing her, and I suggested we switch to hearings by Zoom.

We held our first Zoom hearing in early December 2020. Sitting in my home, I saw G in her living room, with a decorated Christmas tree behind her and a line of matching family stockings on the windowsill. She sat on the sofa with her older daughter, who was holding the now almost one-year-old baby, and she introduced her two dogs. We covered the usual topics, but I could not help but note how much had changed in the year since she fainted in my courtroom.

A 2020 snapshot. A symbol of order meets the potential for chaos. Photo courtesy of Judge Beckerman

The pandemic has allowed judges to enter the homes of the people on our dockets. In addition to the CAPS program, we are conducting Portland’s federal reentry court by Zoom, and we meet our reentry court participants in their homes and workplaces every two weeks. I meet their children and spouses, and I see them in their own living spaces. In addition, some defendants are making their regular court appearances by video from home.

I have worked in criminal justice long enough to know that these brief glimpses do not reveal what might be going on behind the scenes. But when I see G in her living room readied for the holiday, trying to help her children with distance learning, and trying to keep her dogs from barking during our Zoom call, I cannot “other” her anymore, because I am sitting in my living room readied for the holiday, trying to help my kids with distance learning, and trying to keep my dog from barking. Although our lives have landed us in two different spaces, I realize there is much we have in common.

The pandemic has largely interrupted our court’s ability to administer justice, vacating our courtrooms and postponing our trials. But the pandemic has also allowed the judiciary to conduct a worthy experiment. By stepping inside someone’s home, we gain a window into their world, which allows us to see the human being in front of us as more than just their worst moment. Time will tell if the insight we gain helps us to make better informed decisions.