Collin County sits within the northeasterly shadow of Texas’ second-most populous county, and may often be consigned as just a Dallas exurb. But in the case of Collin County’s 470th district court judge, Emily Miskel, that exurb boasts excellence.
Miskel will be presented with the William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence later this fall. Named after the Supreme Court of the United States’ penultimate chief justice, the award “honors a state court judge who demonstrates the outstanding qualities of judicial excellence, including integrity, fairness, open-mindedness, knowledge of the law, professional ethics, creativity, sound judgment, intellectual courage, and decisiveness.”
Due in part to her unconventional path to the bench, Miskel spearheaded the national court system’s transition online due to the pandemic — holding the nation’s first-ever remote jury trial. She then trained many Texas judges on her process which has since resulted in over 175,000 hearings held online across the state.
This outside-the-box thinking should, at least in part, be attributed to Miskel’s background.
Miskel attended middle school in Houston and high school in Dallas. For undergrad, she ventured out to the West Coast, earning her mechanical engineering degree from Stanford University in 2002.
Upon graduating from Stanford, she thought her career course was set — a life in the energy sector was the destiny — until it wasn’t.
After using her engineering degree for a few years to design oil and gas pipelines and refineries in California, she decided to change course to pursue a legal career. Miskel attended Harvard Law School and spent her final year in North Texas with a visiting year at Southern Methodist University.
Texas provided the affordable, family-friendly environment Miskel sought — with the added bonus of escaping the harsh Boston winters. In 2007, she moved to McKinney and has worked in Collin County’s legal system ever since.
In an interview with The Texan, Miskel described herself as an analytical person — a quality she refined in the engineering department at Stanford — but found that solving human problems was where she had the most interest.
And thus, she switched her law school focus from IP litigation to family law.
An added bonus to the more personal side of family law that she relishes, is that court appearances are the rule as opposed to the exception, and Miskel enjoyed being a courtroom lawyer.
After some years working for a private family law practice, Miskel was appointed to the 470th District Court of Collin County in 2015 when it was established to expand the county’s jurisprudential capabilities.
Miskel ran unopposed to keep the seat in 2016 and is on the ballot this year for re-election, also unopposed.
Additionally, she serves on the Texas Judicial Council which sets policy and governs the operations of Texas’ courts. In the Collin County courthouse, specifically, Miskel serves as this year’s administrative judge, in charge of overseeing operations for the various district courts.
A source of joy she receives from the job are adoptions and the up-close dealings with real people facing, and trying to overcome, unavoidable problems in their lives.
In fact, a point of encouragement for Miskel since procedural changes were forced upon the courts is seeing firsthand parties to cases, especially defendants, participating significantly more in their case’s proceedings than previously.
In Collin County, the first case of COVID-19 was recorded on March 9, and thus commenced the beginning stages of planning for what was to come.
The initial hurdle to jump was choosing a video conferencing service. Miskel said they tested Webex, Discord, Microsoft Teams, and, finally, Zoom — which was ultimately settled on.
The use of Zoom has exploded since the pandemic, becoming the video conferencing platform of choice for businesses, governmental bodies, or friends hosting virtual happy hours. The platform’s market cap has exploded to $108 billion, as of September 11.
Because of its in-program tools and relative ease of use, the Collin County Courthouse became one of many who settled on Zoom.
At first, Miskel believed the only cases they’d be able to conduct with the time constraints caused by the implementation of a new medium were urgent matters such as child welfare and domestic violence cases.
“We reserved our limited capacity for emergencies in the beginning,” Miskel stated, further adding that limitation hindered their ability to hear the usual number of cases, “normally, I sit 10 cases per day, and not two.”
Troubleshooting, especially with unfamiliar technology, became the biggest delay as connection and other minute issues compounded. But, like with anything, practice made perfect and it became easier for Miskel and her staff to identify and fix arising issues both on their end and for participants.
Soon, her court began hearing all cases they would normally. In fact, Miskel found the virtual medium actually improved efficiency in some respects.
“The limiting resource, normally, is this courtroom. But being online, we could schedule cases for specific times in advance and avoid the logjam caused by normal proceedings in a physical courtroom.”
With the additional flexibility provided by moving virtual, Miskel sets five cases for 9:00 a.m., five more for 1:30 p.m., and can pick and choose which proceeding to begin and when based on the readiness of the parties to that specific case.
Additionally, her staff can siphon each individual proceeding off into what are called “breakout rooms,” or separate virtual meeting rooms in which deliberation between the parties can be done in advance. This is typically done in the hallway beforehand when physical court is in session — a less-organized and often chaotic environment with 27 different courts operating in the building at once.
According to Miskel, 75 percent of her cases typically settle before appearing in front of the judge.
Due to the breakout rooms, shifting to virtual left this aspect of regular order unencumbered, if not more efficient.
“Texas has never slowed down,” she emphasized, “the perception that our courts have been closed is not the case.”
In addition to this efficiency, another point of positivity is that the technological adjustments have made it easier for defendants to not only participate but submit evidence to their claims.
“In the physical courtroom, which can be an intimidating place, defendants — who were often representing themselves — would attempt to present evidence such as showing a video from their phone as the trial began,” said Miskel. “But since going online, we send out an email the night before requesting evidence for their hearing and now we’re getting all sorts of evidence we weren’t before.”
Attendance has also jumped as the transportation barriers to reach the Collin County Courthouse have all-but-evaporated. Now, attending a court proceeding can be as simple as turning on a phone or computer for a video call.
Miskel chuckled at the mention of this new practice, adding that it’s led to some less-than-ideal choices of attire that must be remedied. “Occasionally I’ll have to tell someone ‘Hey, you have to put a shirt on for court,’ but it’s overall a net-benefit.”
One objection to Zoom court she’s heard is the perceived difficulty in analyzing a witness’s testimony. But according to Miskel, it’s actually easier.
In her courtroom, the view from the jury box of the witness stand is mixed depending on which seat one sits in. But from the furthest back chair, the witness stand is at least the distance between the rubber and home plate in baseball — not exactly adjacent.
However, with Zoom, the witness’s face, and thus their facial expressions, are directly in view.
On the flip side, it’s easier for Miskel to monitor the engagement of jury members with the closer view, even adding that she’s noticed a very high rate of concentration among the jury.
Cons, of course, accompany the pros, but Miskel has found ways to make lemons into lemonade.
Being on the Judicial Council, she will be one of the individuals tasked with identifying which of the new procedures to preserve once in-person court returns.
“Previously, to get courts to use video conferencing, it would’ve taken three years of committee meetings and it still would’ve been shot down,” she specified.
But now, all judges are familiar with the technology and many intend to find a place for it upon a return to normalcy.
Miskel herself plans to use video conferencing for child welfare cases, specifically with the check-in proceedings between the big, bookending hearings.
In an interview with The Texan, Texas Supreme Court (SCOTX) Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, lauded Miskel for her diligence and resolve to not only make things work, but for taking the initiative to show others how it could be done.
“The pandemic just shut down trials because it is next-to-impossible to socially distance in the typically tight quarters of courtrooms and jury rooms,” he emphasized.
Miskel’s courtroom itself is fairly spacious and amenable to the kind of separation required by the pandemic, but the jury box and deliberation room aren’t as accomodating.
Nonetheless, after months of planning and wargaming, on May 18 Miskel held the first virtual jury trial in the country.
It’s been off to the races since then, and for Miskel, spreading the institutional knowledge on Zoom proceedings has remained a cause du jour. Judges across the country have been counseled by Miskel and the positive reception evident is in the award she has been chosen to receive.
In his nomination letter, Hecht added, “In these historically challenging times, a few true leaders have come to the fore. Judge Miskel is at the head and worthy of the award named in honor of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.”
“We think Chief Justice Rehnquist would be proud, as we are, of Judge Miskel’s outstanding qualities of judicial excellence demonstrated most powerfully over the past three months but also over her legal and judicial career,” he underscored.
Rehnquist, himself, revered the U.S. Supreme Court’s first chief justice, John Marshall.
Marshall once said, “To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.”
This focus drove Miskel to family law. And despite this unforeseen hurdle, Miskel hasn’t skipped a beat, determined to maintain regular business as efficiently — sometimes even more so — as before.
It’s fitting that Miskel’s courtroom resembles a hockey rink, modified with makeshift plexiglass walls wherein one must roll with the punches — taking a time of uncertainty and ensuring a bit of continuity: that court will remain in session.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.