Rock County judges submitted their plans Tuesday to encourage but no longer require masks in the courthouse as they try to hold more hearings in person.
They also acknowledged that holding some of the court’s more routine hearings by video could be here to stay.
The judges are trying to enter the third phase of their reopening plan, officials said Tuesday, the same day Rock County discontinued its set of guidelines for reopening altogether.
Judge Karl Hanson said they are still moving forward in a phased plan because, unlike local businesses, some people are forced to come to the courthouse. They cannot always elect not to go if they don’t feel comfortable with safety practices.
The courthouse plans are still awaiting formal approval from the district’s chief judge, but Hanson and Judge Barbara McCrory shared plan details Tuesday afternoon.
Those who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear a mask in the courthouse, Hanson said. Those who are not vaccinated are encouraged to wear a mask. Finally, anyone who would prefer to wear a mask may do so, too.
One exception to the mask policy applies to jury members—they will have to wear masks. Hanson said the judges decided on that because they wanted jurors to focus on the case and not be distracted by anxieties or questions about those around them.
“At least right now as we kind of ease into this, we think this is the most prudent way forward to making people feel comfortable with serving on a jury,” he said.
Court officials will no longer screen jurors before they come into the building, Hanson said. General signs about watching for symptoms of COVID-19 will stay up, however.
There is also a process for those who don’t feel comfortable serving for a trial to get a six-month deferment.
Rock County in 2020 finished 31% fewer criminal cases than the year before, and Hanson previously said not having jury trials for about a year affected how the county moved through cases.
In the three months since March, Hanson and McCrory have each had three jury trials go all the way to a verdict. They suspected one of the other judges who handles criminal cases also has gone through three or four, which would mean in total since March they’ve gone through nearly as many as in all of 2019 (11 criminal trials), according to state data.
“We’re going to get out of this backlog,” McCrory said. “I keep looking at how many cases I have in and how many I have going out. It’s not where I want it to be, but we’re going to keep working.”
The judges have been using a room at the Rock County Job Center for jury selection, a process that usually requires many people gathering in one place.
But as of Aug. 1, jury selection will go back to the Jury Assembly Room at the courthouse. The judges will still have access to the job center for extraordinarily large jury pools, too.
It’s likely that it will take some time to start conducting more hearings in person because notices have already gone out for the next several weeks, and the judges said they didn’t want to create confusion.
Additionally, parties are able to ask judges for hearings to take place over video. Hanson said he thought judges would grant such requests “fairly liberally,” although the judges would prefer that proceedings such as plea and/or sentencing hearings to take place in the courtroom.
But it could be more efficient to hold some of the routine hearings, such as calendar calls or status conferences, over video. A defendant might only need to step away from their job for 15 minutes instead of taking off a day of work to go to the courthouse, Hanson said.
Different parties could also want different ways of following the hearing. McCrory said it is possible a crime victim might prefer to tune in via video instead of physically being in the courtroom.
COVID-19 forced court officials to quickly adapt last year but having video calls could continue beyond whenever the pandemic is over.
“I certainly think that the hybrid system is here to stay,” Hanson said.