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COA hears arguments via web for the first time

Bill Cresenzo//May 4, 2020

COA hears arguments via web for the first time

Bill Cresenzo//May 4, 2020



The appeal of a $3 million verdict against a man who shot another man in a Concord parking lot will go down in history as the first time that the North Carolina Court of Appeals has heard oral arguments via teleconferencing—and as one of the most listened-to oral arguments in the court’s history to date.

Simmons v. Wiles involves two Cabarrus County men who got into an altercation at a tool shop in 2018 in Concord. Wiles shot Simmons in the parking lot, but claimed he acted in self-defense. Simmons sued Wiles for battery, and in 2019 a trial judge issued a directed verdict and a jury awarded Simmons $3 million. At issue is whether the directed verdict was proper.

On April 30, a panel made up of Judges Lucy Inman, Reuben Young and Valerie Zachary listened to arguments via Webex from their respective offices. Luke Baker of Concord, who represented Simmons, and Paul Tharp of Arnold & Smith in Charlotte, who represented Wiles, argued their cases from their own office and home, respectively. (Tharp was once a reporter for Lawyers Weekly.)

“It was very seamless and went off without a hitch,” Baker said. Tharp said the 90-minute session “felt like a normal, live oral argument.”

“There wasn’t anything about it that distinguished it from other oral arguments that I have done before, other than I got to do it in the comfort of my own home,” Tharp said. 

The hearing was streamed on YouTube, which allowed the public to view it from their homes. More than 100 people viewed all or a part of the session, said Inman.

“Often no one attends these sessions other than counsel presenting arguments, so I hope this helps to demonstrate for the public what we do and why it’s important,” Inman said. 

Chief Judge Linda McGee credited “orderly process and thoughtful actions of Chief Justice Cheri Beasley” to keep the courts running for prompting the Court of Appeals to consider technologies that would maintain essential appellate court functions, and that included options for oral arguments.

“Our entire court system has been determined to stay open to deliver justice while carefully protecting everyone involved with the courts—including our dedicated staff, parties in cases before us, lawyers, and our justices and judges,” McGee said.

Fred Wood, director of information technology for the appellate courts, worked with a committee to develop a secure online process for oral arguments through Webex.

“We learned more about this technology and supportive practices that are somewhat new to many of us,” McGee said. “We also wanted to provide access to the public, under the same conditions we have during live oral arguments in our historic courtroom.”

Inman said there were challenges that are typical of all maiden voyages into live streaming. For example, the attorneys and judges agreed to do a test before the hearing went live on YouTube, but the 20-minute test session was streamed.

“I just got a text and yes, we have been live streaming this entire time,” Inman said. “And so, I think we have more than complied with our state’s constitutional requirement that our courts be open and accessible.”

More oral argument sessions are set for May and may continue in June, with Inman saying that the new option for oral arguments could help the courts determine what the “new normal” will be and how the courts can move forward.

Tharp said that COVID-19 “is bigger than us,” and the legal profession will need to find a way to carry on with its cases and practices.

“I would say that this is something that is going to be a lot more common going forward,” Tharp said. “Everyone is naturally a bit reluctant to change things, particularly when they feel that they have been successful with what they have been doing, but change is the only constant in the universe, and this is a change that’s going to have to be embraced.”

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw

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