After a year of mostly virtual operation, Minnesota's federal courts are moving back into the real world.
Criminal and civil trials will resume in the state's U.S. District courtrooms beginning Monday, a sign that the COVID-19 pandemic's grip on the justice system is loosening.
On March 13, 2020, Chief Judge John Tunheim issued an order suspending in-person trials, grand jury proceedings and attorney swearing-in ceremonies, an unprecedented move in Minnesota's federal courts system, in response to early reports of infections in the state.
Tunheim has followed with several orders in the months since, at one point easing restrictions to allow for trials to return but keeping most court appearances to video apps like Zoom.
The last criminal trial to take place in Minnesota's federal courts was for Michael Hari, who was convicted in December of planning and helping carry out a mosque bombing. The public and reporters were barred from the courtroom to allow for social distancing and watched a feed from a grainy, one-shot security camera in another room.
During the trial, a juror tested positive for COVID-19, sending the jury into lockdown and postponing court proceedings for weeks. Tunheim ordered another postponement of in-person trials.
The digital workaround also applied to first appearance and pretrial court dates.
In order to allow for speedy court proceedings, defendants, lawyers, judges and family members joined Zoom hearings on separate screens from jail, their living rooms, home offices or a fast-food drive-through, sometimes forgetting to mute their microphones or struggling with the limits of their technological expertise.
Most of these pretrial hearings will remain online for now. If a defendant declines to appear in a hearing online or over the phone, the court will grant them an in-person hearing on a "limited basis," according to a news release from Rebeccah Parks, spokeswoman for Minnesota's U.S. District Court.
For in-person hearings and trials, the courts will implement social distancing and mask mandates. The courts still will encourage virtual hearings, especially for civil trials.
In-person naturalization ceremonies for immigrants will resume Thursday. Swearing-in ceremonies for attorneys will be held online at least until September.
The first trial scheduled to begin in person is for Kevin Roger Doerr, an Itasca man indicted last year on assaulting people with his car.
Doerr's trial is set to begin May 13 in St. Paul's federal courthouse.
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036