The lives of just about everyone has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but one area that is finding it difficult to operate anywhere resembling normal has been the courts system.
Cases have been pushed back. Hearings have been cancelled. Adoptions have been put on hold. It runs the gamut because social distancing rules and stay at home orders brought the justice system to a near-standstill.
Judge Catherine McPherson, who presides over her court in the Wright County Government for the state’s 10th Judicial District, said the courts are starting the process of catching up with the backlog of cases as stay at home restrictions have been lifted. Like many federal, state and local offices and departments, the return to business as usual is going to be incremental and won’t be done overnight.
“The courts have been shut down just like everybody else,” McPherson said. “We have been re-opening a little bit – gradually and safely – by trying to do hearings remotely. We’re using some new technology to help us with our hearings right now. I want to commend the sheriff (Sean Deringer). His staff has been incredibly helpful in this process, especially dealing with individuals who are in the jail. Certainly, when someone is being deprived of their liberty, they are entitled to be heard in front of a court. We figured out a solution that allowed that to happen with great support from the sheriff’s office.”
The courts have been conducting hearings with as many as possible being done remotely. But, like other offices in the antiquated Wright County Government Center, the courts are facing significant barriers to resuming jury trials. The courts in the Government Center have been out-of-date and undersized given the needs of a growth county for some time and those inequities were the impetus for the construction of the Justice Center, which is expected to open in the fall.
McPherson said that, while other hearings and court proceedings have been able to function to some degree, jury trials in the Government Center are an issue that isn’t going to find a solution or a resolution in the current confines of the courts are on the second floor of the Government Center.
“Jury trials in the facility we have presently are nearly impossible to do with social distancing,” McPherson said. “We’re very concerned about the safety of jurors and also their comfort level. We pack people in pretty tightly up there. For individuals who are trying to practice social distancing of having six feet of separation, bringing a jury pool into this building is really going to be a challenge.”
McPherson added that the challenges that are being created aren’t simply with jury trials and criminal cases. The 10th Judicial District serves many functions, including hearing civil court cases and family court cases, which are becoming more backlogged than criminal cases.
“Of the backlog that developed when the courts closed down, well over two-thirds and maybe three-fourths weren’t criminal,” McPherson said. “We do have a large backlog in the criminal area that we’re trying to address. Our primary concern is public safety, especially on the criminal side of things dealing with issues involving person crimes or more serious crimes. That’s been our priority thus far. For instance, if we have a felony level domestic violence case versus a traffic case, we’re going to take that felony domestic first every time. We’re prioritizing our criminal cases that way.”
Earlier this month, the 10th Judicial District started addressing non-criminal cases virtually, with mixed results. During the COVID-19 shutdown, the courts have been forced to incorporate technology that has never been used before. The system has gone down multiple times with the connections between the parties involved because, if one goes down, the entire system has to stop until all are reconnected.
“It’s a process,” McPherson said. “One of the biggest challenges is, because something like this has never happened in the courts before, we were able to cancel a bunch of hearings and said people notices that their hearing was cancelled and here what is going on, but there was no existing report that (noted) all the cases we cancelled and tell me a little bit about them so we can re-prioritize those.”
Like the rest of the working world, the courts are planning to expand their opening of hearings and cases, including jury trials at some point. McPherson said she is thankful that Wright County has worked with the courts to assist them as it deals with its backlog of cases and moves forward to try to catch up in a landscape still shrouded by COVID-19.
“I am so grateful that we have the good communication we have,” McPherson said. “Obviously, these are challenging times. I think citizens expect government to work well and work well together and I think the communication we’ve been able to do with the county has been very beneficial in that regard.”