JANESVILLE

As Rock County sets records for COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and positive test rate, the county’s judges have decided to again put a pause on holding jury trials until Nov. 9 at the earliest.

Judges Daniel Dillon and John Wood told The Gazette earlier this week that they are looking at alternative sites, such as a large room at the Rock County Job Center, to eventually hold jury trials.

The judges announced in a news release shared late Wednesday that limited in-person court appearances for other matters can continue, although most hearings are being done via video.

Those who appear in person must wear masks and review health screening questions at the courthouse entrance, the announcement states.

An Oct. 1 state Supreme Court order allowed counties to withdraw their approved plans for reopening so those counties could make changes based on the state of the pandemic locally.

And in Rock County—much like other counties across the state—virus spread is not under control, and several local data points have recently reached record highs.

Several Rock County coronavirus data points reach record highs

“We’re quite concerned about the changing landscape,” Wood said. “And we decided to kind of pump the brakes a little bit and re-examine where we were at, which was a good thing.”

So Wood said the judges have decided to pause holding jury trials for a few weeks.

“The criminal courts and the civil courts have been able to function very well without having in-person appearances,” Dillon said.

Dillon, the county’s chief judge, pointed to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said Oct. 5 that the coronavirus can spread more than 6 feet through the air by way of aerosols and not just airborne droplets.

Agency officials said spreading through the air is less common and typically occurs in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces, The Associated Press reported.

Still, Dillon said county health officials were concerned and suggested reconfiguring the plan for jury trials.

A major concern lies in the jury selection process, which can bring dozens of Rock County residents into one space before the court ultimately has its final 12-person jury.

Rock County has a large courtroom it could use that is better for social distancing than other courtrooms, but the judges brought up how areas in that room are fixed to the ground, such as the jury box.

Space at the job center, however, allows for much more flexibility to better ensure physical distancing. The judges have been in contact with the sheriff’s office and information technology staff to work out how to have a jury trial in a remote location.

Wood said most recent cases that would have gone to trial have ended in plea agreements, which was often the case before the pandemic, too.

But granting timely trials, especially for defendants in custody at the Rock County Jail, is an important piece of the criminal justice system. The “speedy trial” statute allows for defendants in misdemeanor cases to have a trial within 60 days and 90 days for felony cases if requested.

WCLO radio reported Oct. 11 that a Beloit man’s 2019 shots-fired case was a priority for a speedy trial. Wood is quoted in the story as calling it his “No. 1 case in this county,” and the case is due for a status hearing Nov. 3.

Wood said, if needed, defendants can petition the state Supreme Court if their trials aren’t happening. The judge said he wasn’t aware of anyone who had made such a request.

Relevant to the Rock County judges’ thinking on pausing in-person matters was Gov. Tony Evers’ order limiting public gatherings, which itself has been blocked for now, a decision that came after The Gazette’s interview with Dillon and Wood.

Wood said health officials suggested that even if courts were exempt from the order, “that we perhaps attempt to follow the spirit of that order.”

“Unfortunately, we’re responding to a spike that really didn’t exist” at the end of August, Dillon said.