Several times a month, child support magistrate Jan Craig Nelson heads up to the third floor of the Redwood County courthouse to conduct child support hearings in 11 counties.
The Gazette met with Redwood Falls-based child support magistrate Jan Craig Nelson on Feb. 6, up on the third floor of the Redwood County courthouse. The goal: watch to see how Nelson uses interactive television to conduct child support hearings in the 11 counties he’s responsible for. “The interactive TV system saves time and the taxpayers’ money,” Nelson said. “Today I had a hearing to conduct in Marshall, and this will save me one and a half hours in travel time. “This enables us to do hearings without travel. It doesn’t make sense to actually visit if there are only two or three hearings,” Nelson said. “Some days are more busy than others; generally for four or more hearings I’ll travel.” With the system, Nelson can conduct hearings in up to four counties per day. On the day the Gazette visited, Nelson had four hearings scheduled in Lyon County. It was also a blizzard day, with travel not advised. When predictions of the blizzard came the day before the hearing, Nelson made the decision to conduct it by interactive TV instead. Normally, Nelson has any the papers that had been filed in that case physically printed and in a file before him as he conducts the hearing. On Feb. 6, he had the papers emailed to him, and could call them up on his desktop computer instead. “I do prefer to have the actual paperwork in front of me; it’s faster to find and flip through that way,” Nelson said. For the hearing the Gazette witnessed, Nelson sat in the Redwood County courthouse, one defendant sat in the Lyon County courthouse, and another dependent phoned in his testimony from a third location. At 9:33 a.m. the hearing started with Nelson introducing himself to the attorneys and witnesses he could see on the TV monitor in front of him. After making sure everyone could see or hear him in return, he warned everyone that the proceedings were a public hearing, and that they needed to respond verbally to every question rather than make non-verbal cues. Nelson next swore everyone in, asking them to stand facing their camera and raise their hands. The child support hearing mostly revolved around confusion about how car payments overlapped child support. There were few technical glitches, most resulting from people at the different locations all trying to talk at the same time. The microphones don’t handle overlapping dialogue well. At one point, the father (speaking over the phone) said he could barely hear the mother’s attorney. Nelson asked the attorney to move her microphone closer. When the hearing was over, Nelson thanked everyone, then shut off the microphones and prepared for his next case. “Every hearing is recorded,” Nelson said. “Today, Lyon County is recording it and will burn it to a CD. Later, I can pop it into my laptop and watch it again to refer to. There are still court stenographer and court reporters, but not so many in the fifth district.” Nelson has control of the cameras and microphones in both courtrooms. If he wants to have a confidential discussion with someone in the room with him, he just cuts off his microphone. “I’m controlling Lyon County’s camera. If I want to get up close and personal, I can zoom into a closeup,” he said. Nelson acknowledges the system has some disadvantages. “”It’s harder to judge credibility when you’re watching someone on TV,” he said. “It’s more difficult to see the nuances of facial expressions, or voice inflections.” Since the system came online about five years ago, the technology has improved. “There used to be a one-second delay (in the television signal), and now I have the ability to control the camera.” Does Nelson like the interactive TV system? “My preference is always to have people in front of me, but given the economic realities of life, it makes sense to do a small number of hearings this way,” he said.