A ‘virtual court’ bill could allow people in Colorado to attend their eviction hearings remotely

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Kevin Breidenbach and Luke Wierman post signs to tents as the Denver Democratic Socialists of America protest rent and evictions as the economy continues to struggle during the pandemic. July 1, 2020.

Many of Colorado’s courthouses made a change during the pandemic: They began to allow more people to testify by telephone and video conferencing.

It was meant as a safety precaution — but it also had the result of making it easier to attend a court hearing. Defendants and others could log in from home or elsewhere, rather than getting to downtown courthouses and waiting for their case.

Now, state lawmakers are hoping to make virtual court hearings a permanent feature for a specific set of cases. A recent proposal would allow people to log on remotely to defend themselves in eviction cases.

State Rep. Iman Jodeh said that giving people more options to fight eviction could help some avoid homelessness.

“If we are allowing a platform where people can attend and not have to be put on a path of homelessness, then that is the right way to go,” she said. 

Jodeh is sponsoring the bill along with state Rep. Mandy Lindsay and state Sens. Tony Exum and Sonya Jaquez Lewis, all Democrats.

The bill wouldn’t just apply to defendants. It also would allow the people filing for the eviction to attend court and file documents remotely. Currently, each judge can decide whether or not to allow remote participation in various cases.

Legislative staff estimates the change would allow some 8,000 more people per year to attend their eviction hearing. That could help some avoid eviction, since skipping a court hearing often means that a defendant loses by default.

But representatives of the courts system have urged lawmakers to slow down.

Terry Scanlon, a liaison for the Colorado Judicial Branch, said that the courts system is already considering its own changes to encourage remote hearings. Virtual hearings have brought many positives, but court leaders would prefer to make the changes through judicial policy, he said.

“We’re concerned about the inflexible language in this bill,” he said.

A committee of judges and court staffers are “working on a policy regarding live streaming of and remote participation in court proceedings” that would “help ensure some uniformity among Colorado’s courts,” wrote Jon Sarché, a spokesman for the judicial department, in an email.

But, at least for now, state lawmakers appear ready to take matters into their own hands. The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee with a bipartisan 11-1 vote on Wednesday. State Rep. Stephanie Luck, a Republican, was the only opposition.

Luck said she supports the idea but wants to give the court system more time to make the change on its own. She worried that passing a bill just for eviction cases could create a patchwork of different policies.