Collin County Judge Emily Miskel was determined to answer the call. It was mid April, in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdowns, and the Texas Office of Court Administration needed to provide data to the Texas Supreme Court to assist them with making emergency orders about jury trials during the pandemic. They wanted to know if anyone would be able to test a remote jury trial. 

A Harvard Law School graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford, Judge Miskel of the 470th District Court frequently writes and speaks on legal technology topics such as electronic evidence, e-discovery, and interception of communication. She is considered an expert in bringing technology to the courts. She had already held the state’s first fully remote bench trial with no jury in March on Zoom, and quickly came up with the idea of doing a fully remote summary jury trial for an insurance case involving wind damage. It was the perfect type of case since it leads to a non-binding resolution and simply helps with mediation.

“It also wouldn’t add cost if it goes horribly wrong,” Judge Miskel said jokingly in a Tuesday afternoon phone interview with Local Profile

It didn’t go horribly wrong. In fact, it went fairly well. Since then, the Republican judge has been training other state judges on holding virtual hearings. As of this writing, more than 175,000 virtual trials have been held in Texas since Judge Miskel’s initial virtual bench trial in March. 

Now Judge Miskel is being recognized as the trailblazer she is. She is the recipient of the 2020 William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence, the highest honor bestowed to a state court judge by the National Center for State Courts. It is given to a state court judge who demonstrates judicial excellence, including integrity, fairness, creativity, and intellectual courage.

“The National Center is honored to present the Rehnquist Award to an innovative state court judge who met the challenge of using technology to make jury trials a reality during the pandemic,” NCSC President Mary McQueen said in a press release. “Judge Miskel is not only a trailblazer in this area, but an extraordinary judge who has been recognized for her outstanding work on the bench.”

Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Texas State Court Administrator David Slayton said in a joint statement in the nomination letter: “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.”

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. will be presenting the award to Judge Miskel later this year. Details of the awards ceremony have not been finalized.

After college, Judge Miskel worked in the refinery and pipeline construction in the oil & gas industry. She realized she enjoyed problem-solving, but she says she was more interested in people problems than valve problems. So she decided to attend law school.  

When she graduated, Judge Miskel went to work for a big law firm where she focused on intellectual property litigation. “It still wasn’t working with people as much as I wanted,” she says.  

In 2009, she left the firm and began working in family law.  

“I kept a technology focus, writing and speaking on wiretapping, electronic evidence, and more,” she says. “When I got on the bench, it was a natural extension to bring my tech focus to the courts.”  

Now she frequently trains judges in technological issues and currently serves on the State Bar of Texas Computer & Technology Council.  

Judge Miskel has been serving the 470th District Court since its inception in 2015. After presiding over more than 9,000 cases, she has established herself as someone with integrity and experience. As part of the Texas Judicial Council, she helps to establish policy-making decisions for the state judiciary. She is also a Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation and a member of the Collin County Bar Association, the Henderson Inn of Court, and the Texas Academy of Family Law. 

This also isn’t her first award. In 2015, she had coauthored an article about electronically stored information. A year later, she received the Exemplary Article Award from the Texas Center for the Judiciary and the McKnight award for best article by the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section. She was then awarded the highest overall ranking in the Collin County Bar Association’s 2017 Judicial Poll. 

In mid April, when she heard about the Texas State Supreme Court’s request, Judge Miskel took on the challenge. She decided Zoom would be the best option to use. She selected the insurance wind damage case because of its non-binding resolution aspect and notified 30 jurors about the upcoming virtual trial in May. To make it appear less like a scam, she had the district clerk draft up their plans for a zoom hearing on the court’s official letterhead. “Several of them called to confirm it was real,” she says.  

They started about 8:30 a.m. and instead of jurors having to drive to the courthouse, they simply had to log in. They were questioned by attorneys. Twelve were selected. “In fact our litigants are more comfortable with it,” Judge Miskel points out. “Many of them are using Zoom as part of their job or to communicate with family.” 

Judge Miskel says they exchanged exhibits the day prior to the trial by email, which she says is beneficial to self-represented litigants because they are able to share more evidence. She has noticed an increase in evidence such as photographs, text messages, and screenshots being submitted. 

Using technology in official settings sometimes doesn’t work out the way people envision, and it was no different for Judge Miskel when she began implementing virtual trials. But she was fortunate because she only heard just the “average amount of ‘Can’t hear you’ and ‘need food,’” she says.    

Judge Miskel has been holding virtual trials for about six months now. She has also learned and refined its implementation to nearly perfection. Now they’re double checking that the audio and video is working properly for all parties as well as making sure that the juror’s name matches their on screen name and not “iPad 7,” for example.

When she started training other Texas judges to implement similar technology, Judge Miskel says she was impressed by them and their willingness to embrace the technology.

It’s a good sign that Texas courts will be utilizing virtual trials after COVID-19, as Judge Miskel says she believes will happen due to the flexibility of the technology.  

“If you had told me March 1 that our Texas judges would be doing virtual court and streaming on  Youtube….” She pauses. “I’m so impressed that our Texas judges grabbed it by the horns.” 

Judge Miskel says she was blown away by the award and thankful for the opportunity and the challenge to move the court systems online. “It is such an honor to be recognized for helping the courts with technology,” she says. 

Christian McPhate

Christian has been working as a freelance journalist in North Texas for more than a decade. His stories have appeared in the Dallas Observer, the Houston Press, and Rolling Stone magazine. He covers a...