With the COVID-19 virus now having reached the community transmission stage, life is changing rapidly at the courts and the Capitol. The latest reports say that 54 cases have been detected in Minnesota.
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea announced orders Friday that state courts will stay open, but under markedly changed circumstances. On Monday, Ramsey County Chief Judge John H. Guthmann issued more granular plans on how the 2nd Judicial District plans implement Gildea’s orders.
In an emailed message to state and county Bar Association members, Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson said she, too, planned Monday to issue “detailed plans in conformity with the chief justice’s order.” Those have not yet been received by Minnesota Lawyer.
Meanwhile, over at the Capitol, the four DFL and GOP legislative caucus leaders on Monday detailed their own plans. They will back away from regular legislative business until April 14, while limiting legislative access to the public and keeping lawmakers at safe distances from one another, all in an effort to avoid spreading the virus.
“The latest we would come back is April 14, but both the Speaker and I can call us back earlier if there’s something that we need to do,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said Monday.
In the overnight hours Tuesday, the House and Senate unanimously passed a $200 million aid package to fund and Minnesota’s medical response to the epidemic. Of that, $150 million is placed in a new Health Care Response Fund for Health Department grants to finance temporary medical testing sites, additional treatment beds and to isolate or quarantine affected individuals. Among other things, the money also can be used to pay overtime to medical staff and purchase protective gear for them.
The other $50 million allows the Health Department to make emergency payments to ambulance services, health care clinics, pharmacies, hospitals and long-term care facilities as they plan for and respond to the pandemic.
Unspent money can be returned to the general fund under the terms of the bill, Senate File 4334.
The Legislature also passed a resolution that allows the House and Senate to forgo meeting at least every three days, which is the normal rule. Instead, the House and Senate will meet in floor and committee sessions only on an on-call basis through April 14.
On Monday evening, Gov. Tim Walz announced that he has ordered bars, restaurants, coffeehouses, theaters, fitness centers and numerous other gathering spots closed. That order, which takes effect at 5 p.m. Tuesday, runs through March 27. No-contact food delivery and takeout from restaurants will be allowed.
That announcement came just after the governor received new information suggesting an economic recession is now projected for the second quarter.
On Sunday, Walz closed schools statewide, while ordering them to continue operating on a limited basis to serve as de facto daycares for emergency responders and court employees.
Here’s a quick breakdown on the most recent developments.
The most detailed response we’ve seen so far to Gildea’s Friday order comes from Guthmann in the 2nd Judicial District. His instructions:
- Civil cases. There will be no hearings in Ramsey County’s civil court division over the next 14 days, with the following exceptions: civil commitments; motions for emergency relief (temporary restraining orders, for example); expedited eviction hearings and trials commenced under Minn. Stat. 504B.321, subd. 2; housing court hearings and trials involving vital personal safety concerns; and emergency guardianship/conservatorship matters. Any civil jury trials that have already commenced may continue, but no new jury trials will occur in the next 30 days, except for super-high-priority or high-priority case.
- Family and domestic abuse. High-priority hearings will occur over the next 14 days as scheduled, for such matters as emergency pre-adoptive custody motions; ex parte and regular domestic abuse and harassment protection order hearings; hearings related to a family bench warrant and others.
- Criminal cases. High-priority calendars will be heard over the next two weeks for in-custody matters. In custody 10-day demands will be consolidated with the misdemeanor calendar. In-custody probation violations where the seven-day period has not been waived will become resolvable at the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center. Medium- or low-priority matters will not be heard over the next 14 days.
- Child protection. High-priority matters like admit/deny hearings (when the child is in placement) and private CHIPS petitions will be heard over the next 14 days as scheduled. Medium- or low-profile matters will not be heard over that time.
- Juvenile delinquency. High -priority hearings on in-custody matters or non-custody matters with a speedy-trial demand will be heard over the next 14 days. Medium or low-priority matters will be rescheduled.
Guthmann’s order is far more detailed than this summary. A link to the order is available with this article at minnlawyer.com.
Legislators will be working on an on-call basis from now until April 14, the four caucus leaders said at a Monday press conference. That was almost immediately illustrated when both the House and Senate gaveled into session Monday with barely half of their chambers filled.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said that while operations will be scaled back over the next few weeks, lawmakers will continue their work. They will do so while following Health Department guidance that they keep six feet apart.
Among other things, that means that only half of House members will be able to be on the House floor during debate and votes, Hortman said. Those on the House floor will be able to vote in the usual way using the electronic buttons at their desks.
Others positioned on the floor alcoves and in the galleries above the House floor will vote manually, thumbs up or thumbs down. Still others, who for space reasons must wait in caucus rooms, will have to walk over to the House floor, be given access by the Sergeant-at-arms and give their thumbs up or thumbs down.
“This is a time that is unlike any that we have experienced, except for maybe 9/11.” Hortman said. “And this one is so different in nature. Because each of us has the possibility to really change the risk profile for the state of Minnesota by our own personal actions.”
House committee hearing rooms will be “radically reconfigured” to facilitate social distancing, Hortman said. Press and public access both to the House floor and committee hearings rooms will be limited during the partial recess.
Senate offices will effectively be locked down to protect members, staff and the public, Gazelka said. “You cannot get in without an appointment is how we’re doing it at this point,” Gazelka said.
Despite the turmoil, however, all four caucus leaders said they were on the same page in terms of embracing the changes. “We’re obviously kind of all in this together,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.
Caucus leaders met over the weekend to decide on a battle plan to get through the next few weeks as the crisis unfolds. “We made a decision that we would continue to work through emails and telephone calls, but we’ll limit the amount of time we spend with each other,” Daudt said.
All four leaders stressed the need for Minnesotans to act in ways that help keep each other safe. That is possibly nowhere more true than the Capitol, the nerve center for political activity throughout the state.
“The Capitol itself is an interesting place in that people come here from every corner of the state,” Daudt said. “I would imagine if there’s a case of COVID-19 here, it’ll be in a epidemiologist’s nightmare to track down all of the people that that person came in touch with.”