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More Courts Reverting to Remote Criminal Trials as COVID-19 Surges

CourtScribes has taken notice that the Minnesota Judicial Council has imposed a new 60-day pause on almost all in-person criminal jury trials, effective until February 1st, 2021. And they are not the only state.

There will be an exception process, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said, but nearly all trials will revert to virtual proceedings. Unless doing so is “impossible or there is an emergency.”

The order will go into effect on November 30th, giving courthouse staff time to adjust. The Judicial Council approved it unanimously on November 19th.


Why are the Courts Taking This Step

This was precipitated by skyrocketing COVID-19 infections, which prompted Governor Tim Walz to reinstate tough restrictions on private gatherings, sports and entertainment venues and restaurant and bar services.

In a second vote, the Judicial Council also unanimously approved an order emphasizing remote courthouse counter services until February 1st, though in-person, over-the-counter services will remain available by appointment.

The new rules will create difficulties for the courts.

The decision coincided with the Minnesota Department of Health reporting a one-day total of 7,877 new COVID-19 infections and a one-day record 72 deaths. Unidentified court employees in Scott and LeSueur counties reportedly are among the 249,906 Minnesotans who have tested positive for COVID-19.

The order effectively re-imposes the court shutdown imposed in the opening weeks of the pandemic. Courts, however, gradually began holding more in-person jury trials. But they were allowed to do so only if they adhered to strict mask-wearing, social-distance and disinfecting guidelines.

In September, even the civil trial moratorium was lifted. Thursday’s order re-imposes it.

Thursday’s decision overrides recommendations from the council’s Other Side Work Group, which had suggested that courts begin ramping down out-of-custody, in-person hearings but continue to hold in-person jury trials involving speedy-trial requests, without exception requirements.

7th Judicial District Chief Judge Jay Carlson offered a motion to pass Gildea’s emergency order. Other than for trials already in progress, he said, no criminal jury trials will commence until February 1st, 2020, unless the Judicial District’s chief judge, in consultation with Chief Justice Gildea, grants an exception.

The order allows other kinds of in-person hearings to be held only if there is an emergency necessitating one, or if holding a remote hearing is not possible.

While demands for speedy trials might trigger an exception to the rule, that will be true only for demands made prior to Nov. 20—the date of the order’s issuance. To wait until the order’s Nov. 30 effective date, council members worried, might invite a crush of speedy-trial demands between now and the end of the month.

Judge John Hoffman offered an amendment related to grand juries. He suggested that prosecutors also be allowed to apply for exceptions so they can continue bringing major criminal charges.

The order puts no new limits on contested omnibus hearings or other proceedings that can be held remotely, council members said.

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