Virus prompts most presiding judges to postpone in-person court proceedings

Virus prompts most presiding judges to postpone in-person court proceedings

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The Alabama Supreme Court recently ruled in-person court hearings could resume this week.

Despite the go-ahead, those proceedings were postponed by nearly every presiding judge in the state.

In Montgomery County, the 15th Judicial Circuit, regular dockets are suspended until further notice due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases. In the 19th Judicial Circuit covering Elmore, Autauga, and Chilton counties, in-person hearings are suspended through next week. Both are still engaged in virtual hearings.

The majority of judicial circuits will revisit the decision in early June. Alabama Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris acknowledges running the judicial system during this time is a challenge.

“I think we’ve come up with some practical ideas for improving things to try and to make things safer,” he said. “The truth is that you can’t do that in every case.”

Social distancing will be a mandate. How to accomplish that for circuits who summon hundreds of potential jurors for half a dozen trials per term remains unseen.

“If you’re in a county that has a really big courthouse and you have a big room that you can bring in 200 jurors in space some safely, or at least you know some large group, then that’s you know one situation,” Harris said. “Small, rural counties may have a very small building, and it just makes it really challenging to do that.”

When in-person proceedings resume in Montgomery, space will be at a premium. Construction, planned prior to the pandemic, will close one floor at a time taking roughly three courtrooms out of the mix.

Reopening orders handed down by Presiding Judge Johnny Hardwick will require everyone who enters the courthouse to be screened and wear a mask. It also imposes a six foot distance around those present with a firm limit on how many people will be allowed in the hallways and courtrooms.

“That’s a big concern, obviously it’s something that can’t be put off indefinitely,” Harris explained.

Some circuits will impose a 10 person limit for each courtroom, including courthouse staff. Others will offer the public video access to proceedings.

The first jury trial term in Alabama is Sept. 14.

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