As we are in the midst of the unprecedented coronavirus epidemic, the big question being addressed in the Minnesota Judicial Branch: “Where do we go from here?” Never in modern history have all of Minnesota courts been on lockdown for months. The courts will face a massive backlog of cases awaiting hearings, with litigants anxious to have their cases heard and proceed to conclusion.

One issue of great significance is the openness of your court system. Court hearings with very few exceptions (juvenile matters) are open to the public to observe. A judge cannot close a courtroom to the public without making very specific findings as to the allowed basis for the closure. Criminal convictions have been thrown out in the past when a judge closed a courtroom during a jury trial without a proper basis and findings.

Therefore, assume in the near future when the courts reopen that social distancing measures are enforced so that a courtroom that holds 100 members of the public is reduced to 50 places to sit. Is that, in essence partially closing the court? A good question difficult to answer given the public health concerns.

Another important issue is equal access to justice. Minnesota has 87 counties, many of which are sparsely populated and lack high-speed Internet. If many court hearings are held via online video meeting programs, such as Zoom, how will the quality of video vary among counties, lawyers, and litigants? One’s location must not affect one’s access to equal justice, i.e. the opportunity to have their side of a case fully heard and hear the evidence and arguments of their opponents. Much of what occurs in the courtroom involves judges and jurors viewing the witnesses in person to determine the witness’ credibility. Hearing testimony via online video makes that process much more difficult. Judges also are concerned that someone off-camera could be coaching the witness and providing them with visual cues how to respond to a question.

Of necessity in this crisis, a methodical and gradual re-opening of the courts for in-court hearings will occur, with input from public health authorities to safeguard all participants and court staff.  Some counties will be part of a pilot program conducting jury trials in their courthouses.

All of the above comes down to one crucial issue: preserving public trust and confidence in the Minnesota judicial system.  We appreciate your patience as we address the “new normal” in our judicial system.  If you are involved in a case, read carefully and follow the directions in the court notice you will receive.  There are instructions for accessing a remote hearing and also may contain requirements for appearances in the courthouse.

If you need assistance with an upcoming court appearance, you can contact the Statewide Self-Help Center at (651) 435-6535. You can find more information about Self-Help Center services in your county at http://www.mncourts.gov/Help-Topics/Self-Help-Centers.aspx.

JUDGE STEVE HALSEY,  Wright County District Court, is chambered in Buffalo and is the host of “The District Court Show” on local cable TV public access channels throughout the Tenth Judicial District. Excerpts can be viewed at WWW.QCTV.org. Go to Community and click “The District Court Show.”  

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