Citing a surge in COVID-19 cases across the state and increasing levels of concern among jurors, Minnesota will put a halt on nearly all in-person court proceedings through January.

The Minnesota Judicial Council on Thursday voted to impose a 60-day moratorium beginning Nov. 30. Juries that have already been empaneled can continue, but must other proceedings will not be held in person before Feb. 1.

All other hearings scheduled to be held in person would need to be conducted remotely or postponed to a later date, unless granted an exception by the district's chief judge. Criteria for exceptions were to be worked out ahead of the order taking effect, but it is expected to be limited.

Courthouses across the state were largely closed for several months earlier this year in an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus and establish safety protocols in each facility. Trials were allowed to resume this summer, with Northeastern Minnesota's 6th Judicial District receiving authorization to convene juries in late August.

While court facilities have been overhauled to allow for distancing and all personnel are required to wear masks, potential jurors have been granted automatic deferrals over COVID-19 concerns. Judges indicated most jurors have reported feeling comfortable with the arrangements, but more are expressing hesitation as Minnesota's infection and death rates have rapidly accelerated in recent weeks.

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A fourth-floor courtroom at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth has been converted to handle in-person trials. The tables for the prosecution and defense are in the old jury box, while the witness stand has been relocated to a different area of the courtroom. The large white screen is to display evidence to the jurors sitting in the back of the courtroom.  (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
A fourth-floor courtroom at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth has been converted to handle in-person trials. The tables for the prosecution and defense are in the old jury box, while the witness stand has been relocated to a different area of the courtroom. The large white screen is to display evidence to the jurors sitting in the back of the courtroom. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Michael Cuzzo said it's becoming increasingly difficult to even assemble the necessary personnel in a physical courtroom, with half of the public defender's office staff currently in quarantine in the district covering St. Louis, Carlton, Cook and Lake counties.

Cuzzo, who is chambered in Two Harbors and Grand Marais, "wholeheartedly" endorsed the measure to move to a virtual-only method for the immediate future.

“Anecdotally, I’m hearing from judges that it’s getting more and more difficult to field a jury with lower reporting rates," he said. "I think this gives us an opportunity to reset with the exception process. It may give us some data on how jurors will or will not report for jury trials, and I think that information will be useful.”

The U.S. District Court in Minnesota took a similar step in early November, saying no new jury trials would be allowed to commence before the new year.

Online hearings have largely allowed the courts to keep moving cases forward as judges struggle to keep up with established goals for timely case resolutions. But they are, at times, beset by technological issues and limitations.

Even at Thursday's virtual Judicial Council meeting, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea experienced frequent connection issues, having to stop the meeting at one point to move from her chambers to the courtroom at the Minnesota Judicial Center.

Judge Krista Martin, of Pine City, chairs the courts' Other Side Workgroup, which is tasked with making recommendations for how to resume proceedings through the pandemic.

The counties of northern Minnesota are leading the state in the percentage of hearings being conducted remotely, Judge Krista Martin told the Minnesota Judicial Council on Thursday. (Screenshot)
The counties of northern Minnesota are leading the state in the percentage of hearings being conducted remotely, Judge Krista Martin told the Minnesota Judicial Council on Thursday. (Screenshot)

She said the 6th District and 9th District — which covers 17 counties, including Aitkin, Itasca and Koochiching — have led the state with 89% of all hearings conducted remotely since July. The case clearance rates in the districts have been as good, or better, than the state's eight other districts, Martin said.

"There are some inconsistent approaches in the state as to which types of hearings are being held in person or remotely," she said.

While there have been infections among people present in courthouses — including a Carlton County juror who tested positive within days of hearing a case in October — Martin said there has been "no documented COVID-19 spread at our court facilities."

The judge credited a "very robust preparedness plan that has been endorsed by the Minnesota Department of Health," but said a fall surge was always anticipated, with the Judicial Branch fully prepared to "ramp down" in-person proceedings for some time.

Judge Leslie Beiers, of Duluth, recently presided over a murder case that required an overflow courtroom at last month's trial and Wednesday's sentencing. She said she supports a temporary hold on in-person hearings.

"As hard as it is to put a pause on things," Beiers said, "I think given the increasing positivity rate, it really is the safest and most prudent thing to do at this time."