Some Circuit Courts Limit In-Person Proceedings During COVID-19 Surge

Courts Revise Plans To Limit Or Suspend Jury Trials And In-Person Hearings

A gavel sits on a desk inside a courtroom
This Jan. 14, 2013, file photo shows a gavel sits on a desk inside the Court of Appeals at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver. Brennan Linsley/AP Photo

Some circuit courts are temporarily suspending or limiting in-person hearings or jury trials due to the growing number of COVID-19 cases statewide.

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court suspended almost all in-person hearings in March, it authorized in-person proceedings to resume in May, so long as counties followed safety precautions and submitted a plan for holding hearings safely to the chief judge of their judicial district.

As cases surged this fall, the court allowed counties to once again suspend hearings or withdraw their plans in an October ruling. Circuit courts in Walworth, Outagamie and Eau Claire counties have issued temporary orders to limit or suspend in-person proceedings.

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In Walworth County, hearings that can’t be held by phone or Zoom are being rescheduled until further notice under temporary measures that took effect Monday. County judicial officials are assessing the need for in-person appearances on a case-by-case basis.

Kristina Secord, clerk of courts for Walworth County, said county judges issued the order because of the rise in COVID-19 cases and its impact on court operations. Secord said at least six of roughly 20 employees in their main office were either under quarantine or isolation last week.

“We were starting to see it impact our office and our staffing abilities, so because of that the judges decided we needed to scale back a little bit,” said Secord.

Secord said some jury trials with statutory timelines may be held in-person, such as those involving a demand for a speedy trial or mental health commitments.

In Eau Claire County, all jury trials and in-person appearances have been canceled through Jan. 15 of next year or until further order of the court. Hearings are being held by phone or video under a temporary order issued Friday, and in-person appearances may only proceed with specific approval from the court.

The order cited a growing number of COVID-19 cases in the county and hospitals that have reached capacity within the Mayo Clinic Health System. State health data shows the county had confirmed 6,149 cases of the virus as of Sunday — more than six times the number of cases reported at the beginning of September.

Jury trials can draw anywhere from 40 to 70 jurors depending on the case, according to Eau Claire County Judge Michael Schumacher. He said they didn’t want to put the community at risk by requiring people to gather at the courthouse for jury selection.

“We just can’t ignore the health and safety of the community at this time,” said Schumacher. “We’re going to do everything we can to give litigants their day in court and acknowledge their constitutional and statutory rights.”

Schumacher said court officials took into consideration jury trials that were scheduled, the seriousness of those cases, whether individuals were incarcerated and victims’ rights when deciding whether to issue the order. He said the temporary measures do not violate anyone’s constitutional rights.

Crime victims are entitled to a speedy outcome of their case in Wisconsin, while defendants are entitled to a speedy trial in all criminal cases under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The pandemic has posed a challenge for courts seeking to protect those rights.

Randy Koschnick, the director of state courts, emphasized that the courts remain operational. He said a minority of counties have had to withdraw plans or suspend in-person hearings or jury trials. Under extreme scenarios, Koschnick said statutory time limits on certain cases would be suspended under the Supreme Court’s order in October.

“We do everything we can to make sure that we comply with all those time limits,” said Koschnick. “We always need to protect constitutional rights.”

Koschnick said counties may explore a number of options to comply with statutory time limits, which could include holding a jury trial in another county. Koschnick said he’s not aware of any counties who have had to resort to those measures, but he noted that some have held jury trials in a movie theater or gymnasium to accommodate the need for social distancing.

Circuit courts in Brown and Racine counties are among others that have also revised or suspended their plans for jury trials and in-person hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.