The coronavirus might have shuttered schools and many businesses, but so far its effect on the judicial system has been minimal.
The Iowa Supreme Court ordered all jury trials to be delayed until at least April 20 as a way to avoid public gatherings. Jefferson County Attorney Chauncey Moulding said the virus has forced the courts to make several changes “behind the scenes” that the public may not be aware of.
For instance, the state has loosened rules that allow court reports to make appearances telephonically, meaning they are not physically present in the courtroom but are listening to the proceedings from a remote location and creating a transcript of it.
“I’m glad the technology exists for us to do that,” Moulding said.
Moulding said his office recently signed up for the ZOOM application that allows the Board of Supervisors to meet online while ensuring they follow the open meetings rules.
“We just had a board of public health meeting last night that was attended by 60 people via ZOOM,” Moulding said.
One of the main changes the coronavirus has brought is both the need and ability of defendants to make appearances over teleconference. The Jefferson County Courthouse’s magistrate office is equipped with teleconferencing equipment allowing it to communicate with a defendant in the jail.
“One of the largest concerns from public health is to do everything possible to stop a contagion from entering the jail,” Moulding said. “An outbreak in the jail would be very bad, so we’re doing what we can to minimize the exposure of people in custody. A lot of incarcerated defendants are appearing via our teleconferencing system.”
Moulding said he doesn’t believe the ban on jury trials applies to bench trials — meaning where the judge decides a defendant’s guilt. However, he said he wouldn’t want to conduct a bench trial remotely.
“There are certain nuances that don’t come across when looking at a screen,” he said.
Moulding said he’s thankful the supervisors have provided Jefferson County with a well appointed courtroom with tall ceilings and tables spread-out. He said the courtroom is so large that it could fit 30 people and still have each one be 6 feet apart from every other person. Nevertheless, the courtroom won’t see any trials for at least the next three weeks. After that?
“I am hopeful things will go back to normal in a month,” Moulding said.
Washington Assistant County Attorney Tony Janney said Washington County has a similar setup, whereby he, the judge and a court reporter all appear at the courthouse in person while the defendant appears over teleconference from the jail.
“The defendant and his attorney appear by teleconference, and they can go off the mic if they need to discuss something in private,” Janney said.
The court has relaxed rules about what sort of filings need to be done in person and which can be done in writing. Janney and Moulding said that most courtroom business has been able to continue because it’s done electronically and does not require the parties to meet face-to-face.
“Things have been rolling on,” Janney said. “We’re trying to look ahead to resolve cases, so if parties can reach an agreement so the attorneys can get a written guilty plea, we’re doing that. But anything that is contested is being delayed to avoid in person contact. Most of those hearings have been continued, because there’s not a lot we can do without the defendant’s presence.”
Defendants in the United States are entitled to demand a “speedy trial” within 90 days. However, the coronavirus presents a problem, because what if the 90 days are up when the court can’t meet? Janney said the court has ruled that only the days that the court is session count toward the 90 days. Once the court reconvenes, those defendants would be given priority for trials.