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
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
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.”