Kentucky’s court system will begin a slow return to normal Monday when hearings on criminal and civil cases resume. But there is likely to be a new normal in courthouses and justice centers across the state.
“I think we have learned that a lot of work can be done remotely in circuit clerk offices and judicial centers,” said Judge C.A. Woodall, who presides over the judicial circuit that includes Caldwell, Lyon, Livingston and Trigg counties.
Kentucky’s court system shut down to in-person services in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some high-priority proceedings have continued by telephone and video conference, but routine matters will not return until Monday. And those cases will not look like usual.
Grand jury proceedings may begin next week, but jury trials will be rescheduled for no sooner than Aug. 1. The courts should conduct remote hearings for cases unless the judge determines the hearings need to be held in-person. If an in-person hearing is held, judges should make sure it is capped at 33% capacity and that virus safety measures, including social distancing, masks and surface cleanings, are observed.
“It’s not unusual to have witnesses testify telephonically in family matters, we’re used to that,” Woodall said, indicating that remote hook-ups could become the norm for certain witnesses in criminal cases before a judge. “I look for that to stick around for some who are in fact remote, out of state or at the other end of the state.”
He is not fond of that idea for jury trials, however.
“A remote hearing will never be a long-term solution for in-person,” he said, suggesting that witness’s demeanor and credibility cannot be adequately determined by jurors through virtual hearings.
A circuit judge for nearly 15 years, Woodall expects a flood of business as courts reopen, as most filings have been on hold for three months. Under the restart, criminal and civil cases that already move at a deliberate pace will slow even further.
“They are not geared to go fast, and that’s the way it should be to ensure we get it right,” he said, but “things will go even more slowly.”
In order to reduce the chances of transmitting COVID-19, face coverings will be required for the public and employees when entering buildings housing court proceedings.
“In my opinion, the biggest (challenge) is to let people know we can provide a safe and healthy court system for everyone,” said Woodall. “It’s a challenge to be able to provide that.”
The challenges will be many and varied based on the county and level of proceedings. Woodall said district judges like Natalie White and James Redd III will contend with a different set of problems than him at the circuit level, as district courts, generally, have much more foot traffic.
“They are going to have to figure out a better way to have people come in and stagger their court times,” Woodall said, acknowledging that the court system on whole is often “categorized as a cattle call.” “All in the court system are going to have get better at parceling out the time so that we don’t have too many people in too small of a space.”
White and Redd preside over district court matters in the same four counties as Woodall does for the higher court.
In Lyon and Caldwell counties, grand juries will be convened in circuit courtrooms rather than the usual, smaller chambers. And Commonwealth’s Attorney Carrie Ovey-Wiggins has made provisions to provide clean writing materials and disposable masks for jurors.
And though jury trials are still two months away, circuit juror orientation in Lyon County is scheduled for next month. Woodall said that instead of having 100 people in the courtroom at a time for those proceedings, he will schedule a quarter of the jury pool for orientation on the hour over a four-hour period.
“While our buildings have been regularly cleaned, the pandemic has changed so much in such a short period of time,” Woodall said. “There are some adjustments to be made, and it will take some time. Each courthouse has its own challenges.”
Jurors who are ill, caring for someone who is ill, in a high-risk category, unable to wear a facial covering or who will suffer further economic loss as a result of jury service shall have their service postponed or excused.
Caldwell County’s 80-year-old courthouse will present unique concerns not experienced at the justice centers in Lyon, Livingston and Trigg counties, all of which are 20 years old or less.
“That is nobody’s fault,” Woodall explained, “that’s just nature of being in a shared facility that is older.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.