Hennepin County District Court officials are planning to resume proceedings — possibly next week — that have been suspended in the face of COVID-19, but the public defender's office is concerned the court is ill-prepared to protect the public from the virus.
A series of memos distributed this week to criminal justice partners in Hennepin County District Court laid out plans to slowly reopen the courts after Gov. Tim Walz's stay-at-home order expires at 11:59 p.m. Sunday.
But Chief Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty said the courts haven't announced safety measures to protect clients, her staff or others. She sent Hennepin County Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson a letter Monday outlining her concerns.
"There are certainly going to be people who are positive [for COVID-19] who come [to court] downtown," said Moriarty. "Why are you going to risk that for our staff and for our clients on misdemeanor charges, which can wait?"
Hearings for clients who are not in custody will be heard when possible in the main courthouse in downtown Minneapolis for domestic assaults, drunken driving offenses, assaults, gross misdemeanors and felonies, according to memos circulated by the court.
A week after that, hearings for gross misdemeanors and misdemeanors are expected to resume at the county's suburban courthouses.
"A safety and cleaning plan is being developed with Hennepin County," said one of the court memos. "…(We expect information about plexi-shields in appropriate areas, hand sanitizer, and cleaning schedules.)"
Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea issued several orders putting many court functions on pause during Walz's stay-at-home order, which went into effect March 27 and was renewed in early April.
While it's unclear whether Walz will extend the order a second time amid Minnesota's growing COVID-19 infections and fatalities, the courts are discussing how to reopen across the state.
"We are working with the MN Department of Health, others in the Executive Branch, and local public health officials to ensure that we have measures in place to protect our staff and members of the public when more in-person activity returns to our courthouses," Alyssa Siems Roberson, a spokeswoman with the Minnesota Court Information Office said in a written statement.
Gildea e-mailed the judicial branch Tuesday noting that health and safety is the primary focus.
"Do not expect an immediate return to 'business as usual,' but rather a careful transition and a measured approach to reopening courthouse access," Gildea wrote.
The Minnesota Judicial Council and a working group are "developing detailed plans" to expand courthouse functions, she wrote, and would react to any action taken by Walz.
Gildea did not outline specific safety measures being considered.
Bernhardson said in a statement that it's unclear when additional in-person hearings will resume in the county, and that the timing is dependent on decisions from Walz and Gildea.
The county is working with justice partners to address concerns and will follow public health guidelines that include marking off seats in courtrooms for social distancing and installing plexiglass barriers at some locations.
In her letter to Bernhardson, Moriarty wrote that a doctor recommended screening clients before they appear at the courthouse.
Moriarty said in an interview that the court has not proposed a screening process, and that her attorneys can't screen clients effectively because many meet clients for the first time in court, and because many clients don't have cellphone service or are homeless.
"That would take a lot of time for our staff to screen clients," she said.
Moriarty voiced other concerns: Public defenders were provided cloth masks by the county, which have limited efficacy in stopping the spread of the virus; clients may not have masks of their own; observing social distancing can be challenging in tight courtrooms and courthouse spaces, and many clients have to bring their children to court.
She advocated postponing out-of-custody gross misdemeanor and misdemeanor cases until it's safer.
"They don't want a backlog of cases, but that is not a reason to risk the health of our staff or clients," Moriarty said of the court.
Bernhardson on Tuesday issued an order outlining a pilot for resuming jury trials: In-custody felony trials with speedy trial demands would be held. No more than four trials would be held at a time.
Juveniles who are in custody would be prioritized, followed by in-custody adults who have waited the longest since demanding a speedy trial, the judge ordered.