The coronavirus pandemic brought normal court operations across Missouri to a sudden halt.
Jury trials were postponed, other court proceedings moved to video conferencing or were done over the telephone, and access to courthouses was strictly limited. Now, the easing of state and local restrictions means courthouses are slowly opening, but it may be a long time before operations fully resume.
A May 16 order from the Missouri Supreme Court set out three phases for reopening, and offered guidance on what judges should consider when deciding to progress to the next phase. The factors included having no cases in court facilities for 14 days, and local conditions such as the number of hospitalizations.
As of Friday, most courts across the state had progressed to phase one, which allows for critical in-person proceedings to take place. Some courts are already in phase three, which says all in-person proceedings can resume as long as courts observe local guidelines on capacity and social distancing.
St. Louis County restarts
St. Louis County recently entered phase one. Michael Burton, presiding judge of the 21st Circuit, said he had no qualms about taking things slowly.
“It’s very frustrating for a lot of folks to not have the ability to have their cases heard,” he said. “The good thing about having this guidance from the Supreme Court, we can clearly point to the directives that were given to us. I think the fact that we have been moving as gradually as we have, we haven’t seen huge amounts of COVID in our courthouse or in the jail or the detention facility.”
If all goes well, St. Louis County could resume jury trials on an extremely limited basis in early July.
The 22nd Circuit, which covers the city of St. Louis, was set to resume jury trials on Monday, until a courthouse employee tested positive for COVID-19. That will delay reopening by two weeks. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said she wouldn’t mind waiting even longer.
“It would be careless of me to just think, 'Hey, we can’t do something, because I know we have to get back to doing some of our trial work,' but I say, ‘Hey, we need to go slow,’” she said.
Regardless of when trials eventually resume in the 22nd Circuit, they will look much different. Just two will happen at any given time, and they will be limited to serious crimes where the defendant has already spent extended time in jail before trial. Masks will be required in public areas, and hand sanitizer dispensers will be plentiful.
The jury pool
In a meeting with the 22nd Circuit’s judges last week, Presiding Judge Rex Burlison acknowledged that fewer people than normal may answer their jury summonses.
“We can have all the attorneys available, we can have the court rooms available, we can have the judges available, but if we don’t have the jurors, we won’t have a jury trial,” he said.
Stephen Reynolds, the lead public defender in the 21st Circuit, said it could take until next year for St. Louis County to get a full jury pool on a regular basis.
There are several reasons, he said. First, people have a rational fear of contracting the coronavirus in a confined, crowded space like a courthouse. Second, he said, some people who have just recently gone back to work after pandemic-related job losses likely can’t, or won’t want to, take any more time off.
“How do you get a jury that’s going to be engaged, and fair to both sides?” he said. “It’s probably going to be a while before the community, and juries are the community, feels comfortable doing that.”
That worries Martin Hutchins Jr., a racial justice fellow at the legal advocacy group ArchCity Defenders.
The jury pool in the St. Louis area is already less diverse than the region’s population, he said. The coronavirus pandemic will only exacerbate that, making it even less likely that non-white defendants get a jury of their peers.
“The jury is such a crucial bedrock of our legal system, and we just cannot allow any new categories of privilege to further influence the administration of justice,” Hutchins said.
Masks will also make it harder for jurors to make key determinations of witness credibility, said St. Charles County Prosecutor Tim Lohmar.
“A jury trial is much like a dramatic performance,” he said. “Just imagine, if you’ve got a mask covering two-thirds of your face, there are some limitations as to how you can perceive someone’s body language and things like that.”
So far, courts in Missouri aren’t going the way of Texas, which recently conducted a full civil trial via video conference. But court personnel say they hope video sticks around for certain proceedings.
“I’ve got a strange feeling that all my status conferences are going to end up being virtual,” said 22nd Circuit Judge David Mason, who oversees one of the court’s trial divisions. “The lawyers are so happy that they can just do it from their office without travel.”
Advocates for victims of domestic violence hope courts continue to allow people in abusive relationships to file for orders of protection online. That eliminates the stress of having to go to the courthouse or a police department.
Burlison expects the court in St. Louis to be operating with some limits for up to two years. But with creativity and flexibility, he said, the legal process will survive the virus.
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