Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea on Friday ordered that no new trials will be granted in state courts until late next month to stop the spread of the coronavirus, broadening measures to mirror its federal counterparts and several other state courts.
The move comes after a nearly constant rollout of incremental changes to the state court system in an effort to stop the virus, which had infected 115 Minnesotans as of Friday.
Trials that are underway will continue, but no new trials will be scheduled before April 22, Gildea ordered.
“I want to begin by thanking all of you for everything you have done over the past several weeks to help our court system navigate this unprecedented challenge,” she wrote in an e-mail to court staff about the changes. “…I want to be clear that we are not shutting down court operations.”
The new measures goes into effect Monday, March 23. Among other changes announced Friday are:
• No grand juries will be convened before April 22. Those that are underway will continue.
• Proceedings before the State Court of Appeals and State Supreme Court will continue as scheduled, although hearings are encouraged to be held remotely if possible.
• Criminal matters in adult court for defendants who are in jail, including bail hearings and sentencings, will continue in courtrooms. Hearings can be held remotely. The same applies to criminal juvenile matters for defendants who are in custody.
• Hearings on evictions will be held “on an emergency basis,” and the parties can appear remotely.
• Public access to courtrooms will be limited to the civilians involved, attorneys and court staff. The media can request access with 24 hours’ notice.
• Court staff will continue to process cases and filings, working from home if possible.
In her e-mail to staff, Gildea wrote that all employees, including judges, will work from home as soon as possible except for in “vital in-person” court proceedings. All employees will be paid regardless of the changes, she added.
“I recognize that things are changing quickly and that we are asking you to implement extraordinary changes to court operations with very little notice,” Gildea wrote in her e-mail to staff. “We are in unchartered waters …”
Gildea sent a letter Thursday evening to Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders requesting that they act to help the courts delay defendants’ legal rights to a speedy trial while Minnesota observes a state of peacetime emergency as declared by Walz on March 13.
She also asked lawmakers to help the courts pause hearings in several types of cases where the law mandates action within a certain window of time — seven to 60 days in some cases.
“The operations of the Minnesota Judicial Branch continue during the current emergency…,” Gildea wrote. “…But residents of Minnesota and judicial branch judges and staff face challenges in attempting to meet deadlines established by statute, across civil and criminal matters, due to the impact of the emergency on daily lives.”
Gildea suggested that lawmakers enact legislation that would allow the courts not to factor in the duration of the state’s peacetime emergency in meeting a defendant’s demand for a speedy trial. State law mandates a trial within 60 days of a defendant’s demand for a speedy trial.
She also asked them to enact legislation that would allow the courts to hit pause on the time requirements for several types of hearings, including: implied-consent hearings held within 60 days, appeals in some juvenile cases that must be heard within 30 days and appearances in evictions that are required between 7 and 14 days, among others.
Chief State Public Defender Bill Ward and Ramsey County Chief Public Defender Jim Fleming have called for the delay of all trials to protect jurors and defendants. Ward and Fleming argued that calling in jurors during a global pandemic put everyone’s health at risk and threatened to prevent their clients from receiving a fair trial.
“My concern, obviously, is trying to seat jurors in a time of a pandemic when they’re going to be more worried about their own personal health and not be able to concentrate on the facts put forth before them,” Ward has said.
Attorneys and judges in Hennepin County have already adopted the informal practice of continuing criminal cases as they faced the uncertainty of how the coronavirus would impact the state’s courts. Last Thursday there were two civil trials and six criminal trials on the jury schedule, meaning they required calling potential jurors to serve in court. Four cases were scheduled to start that week, two were in the verdict stage, one was in the jury selection stage and one jury in a criminal case was deliberating.
Monday, there was one criminal case on the jury schedule. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, there were none.
The state’s public defenders have led the charge in encouraging faster, broader response from the state courts and criminal justice partners, including the release of nonviolent jail inmates. Some county attorneys are examining lists of inmates who could qualify for lower bail or release on their own recognizance at no financial cost. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has said “a bunch” of inmates his office is reviewing could be released starting this week.
The jail population in Hennepin County dropped from 815 Monday morning to 602 Friday morning, said Hennepin County Sheriff’s Chief of Staff Rob Allen.
Allen could not say exactly how many were released because of the public defender’s efforts, but said it played a large role.
“This is not typical,” Allen said of Friday’s population numbers. “When you see a reduction like we’re seeing … that is really a concerted effort with prosecutors, the bench and the public defenders working together to get that done.”
Fleming praised Ramsey County corrections officials for their willingness to furlough dozens of nonviolent jail inmates this week.
“We’re in uncharted territory here,” Fleming said.
Last Friday, Gildea issued her first decision on court operations in response to COVID-19, ordering that high-priority cases continue while low- and medium-priority cases be postponed for two weeks. The initial order left many court functions intact.
Hennepin County Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson on Friday issued an order closing the county’s suburban Brookdale and Ridgedale courthouses starting Monday, March 23 until Monday, April 20. In-custody defendants scheduled for hearings at the locations would be heard at the county’s public safety facility in downtown Minneapolis.
Staff writer Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.