Opening Argument: Administering Justice in a New Era

The UNLV Boyd School of Law works together with the legal system to overcome multiple challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic

Monday, November 29, 2021
Judge Jennifer Dorsey, United States District Court for the District of Nevada

I returned to campus this fall to teach a writing class—in person for the first time in 18 months. Seeing things through a pandemic-tinted lens, I find that much has changed, but much hasn’t. 

Reduced occupancy limits have thinned the once-full classrooms, but the returning students’ vivacity and reverence for this time-honored profession more than fills the void. And although my newest William S. Boyd School of Law clerks completed their education virtually, they remain well-trained professionals and critical thinkers. 

All of this gives me hope that the recent lapses in decorum that plague online courts—for example, litigators appearing for hearings woefully unprepared, from inside moving vehicles, wearing gym clothes, or (famously) with cat filters—are just temporary bugs to be worked out of a new system that will deliver broader access to justice well into the future. 

As our state’s only law school, UNLV Boyd Law is a laboratory for innovative legal-services solutions. When the world moved online last year, forcing all of us to navigate an unfamiliar landscape, the law school stepped up. It rolled out a Virtual Lawyering Boot Camp with workshops and simulations to provide cutting-edge education. Practitioners and faculty worked together to offer hands-on training covering legal-services models, writing, technology, and myriad other practical skills. This collaboration between many stakeholders in the legal community was a success, and I was thrilled to participate when the Boot Camp returned the following year with an expanded curriculum and reach.

Similarly, I am proud of how my court has met the challenge of administering justice amid disruption. Our judge-led, drug-diversion program—known as RISE (Recovery, Inspiration, Support, and Excellence) Court—was in its inaugural year when the pandemic struck. RISE gives select defendants battling a substance-use disorder a unique opportunity to have their federal felony charges dismissed after completing a rigorous course of treatment and self-improvement. 

COVID shutdowns complicated the already-isolating experience of addiction and recovery. But RISE thrived, largely because of the commitment of our U.S. Pretrial Services team, which kept participants engaged with a redesigned online model. In August, we celebrated that success with our first in-person RISE Court graduation—a celebration not just of the graduating participant who completed the program and saw her life transformed, but of the good that the American legal system can do.  

I also am heartened by the jury selections over which I have presided since we adapted the process to include masks, social distancing, and enough plexiglass to transform the jury box into the penalty box at a Vegas Golden Knights game. Nevadans have overwhelmingly answered their summonses and performed their civic duty, despite the risks and added challenges that the pandemic presents. And the 12 strangers selected as jurors almost always set aside their divergent backgrounds, faiths, and politics to achieve unanimity.   

As we emerge from this era, I am hopeful that what I love about our profession endures: the rigor of the process in which we search for truth; the showcasing of communication skills from talented oral advocates and gifted writers; and generous counsel willing to donate their services to assist a public in need. 

Incorporating the best practices developed during this time will only strengthen these pillars. And by serving as a liaison between the courts, counselors, and the community at large, the Boyd School of Law will help maintain these standards.

U.S. District Judge Jennifer Dorsey is a native Nevadan who earned her undergraduate degree from UNLV. She is honored to be a small part of the William S. Boyd School of Law’s legal-writing program, which remains ranked No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report.