As COVID-19 surged in Minnesota last year, both state and federal courts were forced to slow down, with many trials put on hold.
That prompted one Curious Minnesota reader to ask how the court system is operating during the pandemic. They requested anonymity but wanted to know about virus precautions' impact on court hearings, trials and jury selection.
More than 190,000 state court cases have been impacted, says Jodi Boyne, public affairs director for the Minnesota Judicial Branch. These are cases that had to be canceled or rescheduled, or a party was unable to attend due to COVID-19.
Some 180 state criminal jury trials and 10 civil trials took place between June and November. But with a sharp uptick in infections statewide, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea issued an order suspending all new trials starting Nov. 30. It allowed for a few exceptions, including cases in which attorneys demanded a speedy trial or in matters important to public safety.
There were only five state jury trials in December, with COVID-19 protocols in place, including a requirement that everyone wear masks and social distance. Jurors were seated at least six feet apart, larger courtrooms were used and barriers installed, separating people to minimize exposure.
Yet state courts remained busy with hearings, mainly by video. There were 84,000 remote hearings in December and 9,000 in-person hearings. Not surprisingly, there's a backlog. Since the pandemic began, the pending caseload in felony, gross misdemeanor and misdemeanor cases has climbed 46% in state courts, from 64,000 to 94,000. Nonetheless, the resolution of major criminal cases in the past six months has risen by 12%.
Boyne said remote hearings have made it easier to provide court interpreters, because they don't have to do as much traveling to courthouses. Some court jurisdictions have set aside rooms in courthouses so individuals who lack a computer or internet access can participate in remote hearings.
The state judicial council, which includes chief judges in from across the state, will meet remotely Thursday to talk about what happens beyond Jan. 31.
"We are in an assessment and evaluation mode in preparation for the discussion next week," Boyne said.
In the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, Chief Judge John Tunheim issued an order in December that continued a suspension of federal trials until Jan. 31.
"I am not anticipating holding any in-person jury trials in February," Tunheim said. "And beyond that, we're going to wait to see what advice we receive from the state health department and Centers for Disease Control."
Tunheim added that the federal court plans to conduct a civil jury trial "virtually" starting the last week in January. Jurors, lawyers and witnesses will not come to the courthouse, but will participate from their homes or offices.
There have been 2,743 Zoom sessions federal courts here since the pandemic began, Tunheim said, most of them court proceeding. He estimated half were criminal cases and half were civil cases.
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