A Judge's View Column: Courts deemed critical, are carrying on
These past few weeks have been a challenge for everyone, including the court system. COVID-19 has made a lot of normal court functions difficult, and the situation has been so dynamic that plans made on any given day might be obsolete in a matter of hours. But it is important for everyone to know that, in spite of the pandemic, the courts were deemed a critical sector by the governor, and we are still on the job.
That job certainly looks a lot different than it did a month ago. The physical courthouse building is eerily quiet now, with many of our staff working remotely from home. This is possible because the courts went to paperless files several years ago, so much of the case processing can be done from anywhere. For hearings, we are experimenting with completely virtual courtrooms, where even the judge and court reporter are off-site. These steps are designed to minimize the traffic in courthouse buildings and slow the spread of the virus, reducing exposure for both court staff and the public.
As you can imagine, rolling out all these new remote workstations put a significant strain on the network infrastructure statewide. Our information technology folks have been working at a truly insane pace to keep up, providing hundreds of new remote setups and increasing server capacity more than eightfold since the start of the pandemic.
A few days ago, I handled several criminal matters where all of the parties and attorneys appeared remotely. I had my laptop on the bench with me to see and hear the other participants. It wasn’t perfect, but we got the hearings done. As everyone gets used to this new environment, I am confident things will continue to improve.
Service counters at the courthouse are temporarily closed, but e-filing is still available for court users. The mncourts.gov website has much more information, along with interactive self-help tools to assist people wishing to file documents remotely. Most attorneys have been signed up for e-filing for some time, so that part of the process is largely unchanged.
Unfortunately, there are some court functions that still require face-to-face contact. Jury trials have been suspended until at least late April. There really isn’t a good way to sequester a dozen people in a deliberation room and practice smart social distancing. Many other types of cases are in a temporary holding pattern while we focus our attention on the most critical hearings, specifically those where criminal defendants are in custody, as well as emergency family motions, orders for protection, and child protection matters.
In the last two weeks of March, our judicial district of Lake, Cook, Carlton, and St. Louis Counties had postponed nearly 800 hearings. Statewide, that number is well over 10,000. However, as we work through the technology issues, we should be able to gradually expand the number and types of hearings we can do remotely to keep cases moving. It will take some work, but eventually we will get caught up.
The past few weeks have been unlike any in my lifetime, and I am sure the coming weeks will continue to be difficult for all of us. But the court system is an important public institution, and all of us who work in that system are going to do all we can to keep it running.
Dale Harris is a 6th Judicial District judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.