As cases of COVID-19 continue to surge, district courts across the state will suspend jury trials and ramp up remote hearings effective Nov. 30.
The Judicial Council unanimously voted Thursday, Nov. 19, that all new criminal jury trials should be put on hold until Feb. 1 and that all court proceedings should be conducted remotely unless it is impossible to do so.
“For us in the judiciary, we are used to doing balancing analysis and we need to do that now, it seems to me, as we consider whether and how we should ramp down some of our in-person court proceedings,” Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Lorie Gildea said. “Of course, on one side of the scale is our constitutional mission. Our constitutional obligation to ensure access to justice and to ensure that it is provided freely and promptly and without delay.”
“That is a very important weight on that side of the scale,” she said. “On the other side of the scale is our duty to protect the health and safety of our judges and staff and all of the people we serve. And for me, I think engaging in that balancing tells me that we should hit the pause button and scale back on in-person proceedings for 60 days.”
The actions do allow for exceptions in the case of an emergency or with the approval of the chief judge of the court district, in consultation with the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
In the case of jury trials, those already in process may continue. Defendants, especially those in jail on a pre-trial basis, who demanded a speedy trial prior to the order being issued are eligible for an exception to the shutdown.
The Judicial Council’s Other Side Working Group had recommended that jury trials should continue following previous protocols in place but acknowledged that the recommendation was formulated prior to Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order. On Nov. 18, Walz announced that bars and restaurants would close for indoor service for four weeks starting Friday, Nov. 20, and that fitness centers and other places of entertainment would be closed in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus..
“I supported those recommendations then but they didn’t give us a crystal ball and we did not see, even though we knew things were difficult, we did not see the dramatic downturn just even the last week that we’ve seen and the increase in the positivity rate,” said Judge Lucinda Jesson, who sits in the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Jodi Williamson, chief judge of the 3rd Judicial District, said there was unanimous support among judges in her district.
At the end of March, Gildea ordered a halt to new jury trials. In June, a small number of district courts in Minnesota were given the go-ahead to restart criminal jury trials as part of a pilot program. Olmsted County was among the small list of courts. As the summer progressed, more courts were allowed to conduct jury trials and increase in-person proceedings.
Tenth Judicial District Court Judge Krista Martin, chair of the Other Side Workgroup and a judge in the 10th District, told the council that there has been no “documented COVID-19 spread at our court facilities.” Martin credited that, in part, as a result of the “very robust” preparedness plans the courts have put in place.
Tenth Judicial District Court Judge John Hoffman echoed the sentiment. Having conducted a number of jury trial in Washington County, Hoffman said they have not had any COVID issues.
"The wild card is the public coming in and jurors that are coming in and we are not screening those people," Hoffman said. "It would be devastating, in my view, if we brought jurors in and some juror became infected with COVID while we are trying to do a jury trial. It is going to be very complicated and very hard to justify, I think, to the public if that in fact happens."
The council also approved a motion that at least one public service counter in each county and the appellate courts must be accessible to court customers Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Counter accessibility may be accomplished by providing service remotely, in-person and/or by appointment only.