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Wright County News

Posted on: May 15, 2020

Courts Facing Backlog of Cases as COVID-19 Changes Business as Usual

There is a saying that goes, “The wheels of justice turn slowly.” Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, those wheels have almost ground to a halt.

Over the last month-plus, the courtrooms at the Wright County Government Center have become akin to a ghost town. What typically is one of the busiest areas in the Government Center in terms of traffic volume has been silenced. Because of the social distancing and stay at home protocols that have been in place, what normally would be the standard process of moving cases forward has turned into a backlog of cases that continue to pile up.

When many think of the court system, they tend to equate it in terms of criminal court. However, there is also family court, civil court and probate court cases that are scheduled to be heard that face the same dilemma of the lack of available court docket space.

Monica Tschumper, court administrator for the 10th Judicial District based in Buffalo, said the game has changed in terms of how cases are heard and many are having to learn by trial and error how the new reality of hearings are taking place.

“We’re not having jury trials yet, but we do have virtual courtrooms,” Tschumper said. “We have three virtual courtrooms going right now separating the urgent cases from the non-urgent. We’re also trying to deal with the new cases that are coming in so we don’t increase the backlog. It’s been difficult because our virtual courtrooms haven’t always been stable. We’ve got prosecutors, public defenders, defendants and clients and everyone has to appear remotely. Sometimes it’s working and sometimes there are problems. It’s new and we’ll get better at it as we move along.”

Unlike a standard Zoom or Skype meeting, if one participant has technical difficulties, the meeting can still go on. That’s not the case when it comes to court hearings. If one person has a glitch in the virtual communication, the entire process comes to a halt.

“It has definitely been challenging,” Tschumper said. “We’re taking processes that have rarely been in a virtual setting away from our standard courtroom setting and moving them to a virtual courtroom. Everything has to work right on all ends to be successful and if you can’t hear the prosecutor or the defendant or the public defender, you’re having challenges thrown at you that you’ve never had to deal with before.”

One area of particular concern has been jury trials. The six courtrooms in the Wright County Government Center are extremely antiquated and were built at a time before even the most basic of technological advancements were available. The cramped courtrooms weren’t intended for laptops and other technologies, much less the era of social distancing.

Tschumper said that the current courtrooms in the Government Center simply can’t provide the space needed to adhere to social distancing – anyone who has sat in a jury box knows how tightly packed jurors are. Until those rules change, the odds of having jury trials go on as they typically have is almost impossible.

“Jury trials with the social distancing and the stay in place order simply aren’t able to be done,” Tschumper said. “We’re taking it incrementally and new cases keep coming in that are adding to the backlog. From what we’re hearing, a lot of the same issues with social distancing are going to continue into the summer months and that just adds more to what we need to do. We may not see jury trials in Wright County until we’re in the Justice Center – when we can have more distancing with our juries and grand juries. But, jury trials won’t be happening here for a while.”

Courts throughout the state and the country are facing similar problems and plans have been discussed as to how to break the logjam of cases when courts are allowed to reopen to a higher level than we’re seeing currently.

Among the discussion points has been to keep the courts open longer – having jury trials in the evening and on Saturdays in an attempt to catch up. Tschumper said that the sharing of ideas and potential solutions is almost a daily discussion as the number of cases that require hearings continue to get added to a growing list.

“There have been discussions about a lot of different options,” Tschumper said. “We have a backlog of cases because we had six courtrooms running every day and we’ve gone for six weeks only hearing the most serious cases, which is only a handful a day. We’re trying to work with our stakeholders involved to say what measures are you taking to try to address your cases. Once we can address our backlog in a more efficient way, we will be looking to find ways to get things back running as they should be and have been.”

With this week’s announcement that the stay at home order from Gov. Tim Walz is set to expire Monday (May 18) gives Tschumper and others in the courts system hope that the wheels of justice can start moving a little faster, but admitted there is still a long way to go before getting back to normal.

It won’t be easy, but she’s confident there will be solutions found to get the courts back up and running and get jury trials back on the court docket.

“We’ll get through it,” Tschumper said. “Right now, we’re just having discussions about how we handle it when we are able to have the courts operate like they have in the past. That may be a while, but we’re coming with plans how to get things rolling. We’re just waiting for the opportunity.”

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