Judge William Morvant was dressed in a typical judge’s robe Thursday, seated between an American and Louisiana flag in a 19th Judicial District Courtroom, ready to take up a pivotal case between Gov. John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry over whether the state’s coronavirus restrictions should be lifted.
Not long after the proceedings started, a disembodied voice chimed in with a comment against the governor’s argument. Morvant turned to his computer.
“I don’t know who said that,” Morvant said. “And the next person who speaks without identifying, I will mute them and they will not participate in this hearing anymore.”
Such are the frustrations of high-stakes court hearings set in the year 2020. Morvant and the cadre of attorneys were arguing via the videoconferencing software Zoom, and only lawyers were supposed to have the ability to speak. Apparently, a member of the public had slipped through the cracks and unmuted himself. “Snide comments coming from the peanut gallery,” Morvant clarified, “are not going to be appreciated by this court.”
“Our state needs to be open,” the unidentified man said.
“If we were in open court, I would hold you in contempt and have you removed,” Morvant said, becoming agitated. “If you say anything else in this Zoom hearing, I will have you removed.”
The man kept speaking. Morvant made good on his promise. “Have that person removed,” he said. A staffer obliged.
Attorney General Jeff Landry and multiple Republican lawmakers had hyped up the hearing all week, posting the Zoom link on social media and encouraging people to attend. Their efforts to draw sympathetic observers to the hearing worked, and the public quite literally made their voices heard.
The hearing was open to the public, up to a point: There was a 300-person limit, and some weren’t able to access it, including, for part of the hearing, House GOP Delegation Chair Blake Miguez, who was tuning in to see if the petition he helped orchestrate to revoke the governor’s virus restrictions would succeed.
Those who did make it into the Zoom hearing included a woman laying in bed, stroking a stuffed animal; someone whose dog barked loudly at one point and someone whose name read “John Q. Public.”
“My question is why did they disable our chat abilities?” one woman asked during a recess, when several members of the public took themselves off mute and talked with one another.
The chat function on the Zoom hearing read much like a Facebook comment section. People watching — a group that appeared to mostly be opposed to the governor’s restrictions — claimed “the judge has been bought off” or that he was “very biased,” or a Democrat.
Morvant took office as a district judge in 1997. He is a Republican. After an hourslong hearing, and after reading hundreds of pages of pleadings, Morvant sided with the governor, rejecting an effort by Republican lawmakers to toss out all of Louisiana's coronavirus restrictions.
The 19th Judicial District, in downtown Baton Rouge, has a list of rules for Zoom hearings. If you're presenting testimony, you are expected to make sure your witnesses have a good internet connection and "know how to operate the controls." People taking part in the proceedings are expected to wear court attire, have proper lighting and follow judges' orders to mute their microphone if instructed to do so.
"Make sure there is no source of unwanted noise in the location you are using, such as a ceiling fan or barking dog," the rules say.
The first part of the hearing involved Landry’s office arguing with Morvant over whether their pleadings were still relevant, now that Gov. John Bel Edwards had already issued a new set of coronavirus restrictions. Landry, on behalf of House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, was asking Morvant to force the governor to abide by a petition sent by House Republicans ordering Edwards to revoke his restrictions.
After a long exchange between the judge and Landry’s legal team, in which Morvant threatened to mute one of Landry’s attorneys, the judge wanted to hear from the governor’s side. Matthew Block, Edwards’ top lawyer, dove into the argument.
“Mr. Block, you have to unmute your computer,” Morvant advised. “I still don’t hear you.”
Block moved down the conference table to another computer. “Can you hear me now?” he said.
At certain points, the hearing operated as a conventional legal proceeding between the governor and attorney general. At others, the virtual setting took center stage, with attorneys experiencing technical difficulties or the “peanut gallery” making a disturbance. By the time it was over, Morvant had ruled against Landry’s motion to force the governor to follow the petition, and declared the law used by House Republicans was unconstitutional.
As Morvant was taking up a series of procedural moves in the middle of the hearing, a strange noise emanated from the Zoom meeting, stopping everyone in their tracks.
“I don’t know what that was,” said Liz Murrill, Landry’s top deputy.
“I don’t either,” Morvant replied. “I wasn’t the one that invited the entire state to participate.”