All in-person appearances and jury trials in Rock County courts have been suspended until next year as COVID-19 infections continue to rise locally.
In a memo issued Wednesday, the county’s judges announced that all jury trials will be suspended until at least Jan. 19, and all in-person court appearances are suspended until further notice.
“Unfortunately, the overall public health situation in Rock County remains insufficient to allow for the safe resumption of jury trials,” a news release from the judges states.
This marks yet another delay in jury trials and scaling back of appearances since the pandemic began here in March. The judges said the courts are moving back to phase one of their reopening plan.
Rock County is part of Wisconsin’s Fifth Judicial District. Since March, only one jury trial has been held in the county, according to the release.
In September, the county resumed limited in-person court appearances for certain hearings, but not jury trials. Plans called for restarting jury trials Oct. 14, but those plans were pushed back to Nov. 9 and now are being delayed until January to protect public health.
From Nov. 1-16, the Rock County Health Public Department reported 2,364 new COVID-19 cases and 14 virus-related deaths.
The spike in cases over that period represents nearly a third of all virus cases reported since the pandemic began. Rock County saw more positive cases in October than in the previous seven months combined. The number of daily hospitalizations caused by the virus has doubled in just over two weeks, health officials say.
The state Department of Health Services has described Rock County’s infection rate as “critically high.”
“The situation in some ways is impossible to predict,” said Rock County Chief Judge Daniel Dillon. “It’s really an unprecedented situation, and we have to be ready, willing and able to adapt to the situation as it progresses.”
Leading up to Wednesday’s announcement, Dillon said the county had been inundated with phone calls from potential jurors who had safety concerns about jury duty.
Branch One Judge Karl Hanson said the court is tracking a list of cases that involve speedy trial demands as scheduling is pushed into mid-2021.
“We maintain a list of those speedy trial demands and schedule those first, and we have to take into consideration a number of factors,” he said.
Once jury trials resume, both Dillon and Hanson said the Rock County Jobs Center in Janesville is still the potential “primary location” for trials, followed by the courthouse’s largest courtroom, Courtroom H, where county board meetings were held before the board transitioned to virtual meetings.
“It seems in all likelihood we would ramp up first at the jobs center,” Dillon said.
Hanson said a plan is underway to develop remote-access points across Rock County for those without internet or computer access. Final locations have yet to be determined, but the sites would include two north of Janesville, two on Janesville’s south side and two in Beloit.
“This once again shows the adaptability and willingness to work on these challenges from everyone involved,” Hanson said.
Even as trials and in-person appearances are on hold, hundreds of virtual appearances via Zoom continue.
“We are pleased that everyone has come together to find solutions to problems we might not have been able to face when the pandemic began,” Dillon said.
The judges will continue to consult with stakeholders and experts about the viability of resuming jury trials as the public health situation develops.
Parties and attorneys with trials scheduled on or after Jan. 19 are asked to prepare for trial as scheduled unless the presiding judge orders otherwise.