Rock County courtrooms might start hosting court hearings again soon, but don’t expect things to go back to the way they were.
The state Supreme Court on Friday ordered local courts to develop rules that would allow courtrooms to reopen but with changes designed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In previous orders, the high court suspended jury trials and most in-person proceedings, among other changes.
Even after reopening, judges could require masks, social distancing and other rules designed to stop infection.
Rock County judges, attorneys, county government officials and others met online Tuesday to start planning. They face a mountain of questions that must be answered before courtrooms reopen, including:
- How will people get in and out of the Janesville courthouse safely? How will they be screened for possible COVID-19 symptoms? Will they have their temperatures taken?
- How will courts be notified when defendants, plaintiffs or others are turned away and can’t appear for their hearings?
- How many people will be allowed in the courthouse at one time? How will officials schedule hearings so courtrooms don’t become crowded? Will seats be removed? Will tape on the floor define the distance between people?
- Will people be required to wait in their cars until their hearings are called? Is that practical in hot weather?
- Who will pay for masks, extra cleaning and perhaps even air purifiers in courtrooms?
County Chief Judge Dan Dillon noted that supporters, loved ones and others often attend hearings. “What are we going to do with all the extra people?” he asked.
And what if a defendant or witness won’t appear because of fear of catching the virus?
“We can’t solve all these things today, but we need start talking about it,” Dillon said. …“If you’ve got a good idea, we want to hear it.”
Officials were assigned subcommittees to work on various aspects of court operations and report to the task force on Monday.
Sheriff Troy Knudson said his biggest concern is how to handle jail inmates, who are kept in separate units to limit the spread of infection but who could be mixed together when brought to the courthouse.
Attorney Teresa Arrowood noted that a narrow hallway known as 3R was often crowded with “droves” of people appearing in family and other cases. She called the hallway “a nightmare.”
Judge Jeffrey Kuglitsch said Courtroom H, the courtroom the county board uses for its meetings, is the biggest and best for allowing people to maintain 6 feet of distance, but the courtroom is not considered secure, so transporting of prisoners is a concern.
No deadline was set for reopening the courts. Judge John Wood said the sooner the officials can finish their work, the better.