Faced with a surge of COVID-19 infections across the state, the Minnesota Judicial Council voted unanimously Thursday to put a moratorium on criminal jury trials for two months and conduct all hearings remotely.
Chief judges in each judicial district can grant exceptions based on criteria to be mapped out in coming days.
The moratorium will begin Nov. 30. The state judicial council is composed of judges, including chief judges from across the state, and is chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, who cited the dramatic recent rise in positive COVID-19 test results.
“Our constitutional obligation is to provide access to justice,” she said, adding that the courts also have a duty to protect judges, staff and the public.
“We should hit the pause button and scale back for 60 days,” she said, but added, “I am not excited about making these recommendations.”
While no mention was made of resuming civil trials, which were previously put on hold until Dec. 1, it appeared likely that those trials will also be suspended until Feb. 1.
Under the plan, all in-person hearings will switch to a remote process, unless a chief judge in a court district approves an exception. State courts are currently using a video or phone system for many hearings. State trials already in progress would be allowed to continue.
The decision came as the state court system has been under pressure to halt its in-person operations.
Last week, Chief Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty, who heads a staff of 120 lawyers, urged Hennepin County Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette to suspend out-of-custody jury trials and in-person hearings because of the spread of the virus.
Earlier this week, Andrew Birrell, president of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which represents 450 attorneys, wrote Gildea, urging her to place criminal defense trials on hold.
Moriarty applauded the judicial council’s actions.
“I am gratified that they are placing the health and safety of our staff and the community above appearances that don’t need to happen right now,” she said.
The requests by Moriarty and Birrell were not mentioned during the livestream meeting of the judicial council. Judges, however, referred to Gov. Tim Walz’s order this week setting restrictions on public gatherings, gyms, bars and restaurants.
Washington County Judge John Hoffman, president of the Minnesota District Judges Association, said that 30 to 35 senior judges have offered to assist the courts in cleaning up the backlog of cases. But the great majority of them, he said, were not interested in making personal appearances in courtrooms, although they were willing to work remotely.
“The wild card,” he said, “is the public coming in and the jury coming in and we aren’t screening people, and it would be devastating if some juror got infected while we were in a jury trial. It would be very hard to justify to the public.”
Michael Cuzzo, chief judge for the Sixth District who works out of the Lake County Courthouse in Two Harbors, Minn., said during the judicial council meeting that he supported Gildea’s proposal “wholeheartedly,” noting that it was becoming more difficult to get a jury to sit on a case.
Clay County Judge Michelle Lawson, based in Moorhead, said until three weeks ago jurors were very comfortable serving, but recently they were getting uncomfortable “and rightfully so.”
The judicial council’s executive committee will be developing criteria that would allow a chief judge in a district to permit a criminal trial to take place, if an attorney for a client pressed for it.
The council also voted to continue to make the public counters of courts accessible, although it might be through a remote connection or by appointment.
The judicial council’s actions came despite a recommendation by a council committee at the start of Thursday’s meeting to continue jury trials. “I understand this will be controversial,” said Pine County Judge Krista Martin, chairwoman of the committee.
Martin acknowledged that “the landscape has been changing dramatically” and the COVID infection rate has been increasing.
Gildea praised Martin’s leadership, then recommended the moratorium, noting the rapid recent rise in infections.
Early on in the pandemic, state court trials were suspended and then later permitted. The U.S. District Court halted trials in Minnesota, resumed them in September, then again suspended them for the rest of the year.
Two nationally recognized authorities, Lisa Brosseau, an industrial hygienist at the University of Minnesota, and Thomas Smith, a ventilation safety expert from North Carolina, this month reviewed Hennepin courtrooms and protocols at the request of the Star Tribune.
On a scale of zero to four, with zero being no risk and four being high risk, the two experts ranked Hennepin courts between a three and a four. In an interview last week, Brosseau urged that trials in the state be suspended.
She said Thursday that she was glad the judicial council had acted.
“I think closing in-person jury trials is what is needed,” she said. “It is the right decision.”