Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Recent News
Home / All News / Courts revert to remote criminal trials as COVID surges
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, shown speaking to the Judicial Council on Thursday, said the judiciary’s experience over the past six months proves that Minnesota’s courts can successfully do their work and weather the pause. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Judicial Branch)

Courts revert to remote criminal trials as COVID surges

The Minnesota Judicial Council has imposed a new 60-day pause on almost all in-person criminal jury trials, effective until Feb. 1.

There will be an exception process, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said Thursday, but nearly all trials will revert to virtual proceedings—unless doing so is “impossible or there is an emergency.”

“That’s my thought and my recommendation to the Judicial Council at this point,” Gildea said Thursday. She said the order is “in the best interests of the [Judicial] Branch and in the best interests of the people of we serve.”

The order was expected to be issued early Friday and will go into effect on Nov. 30, giving courthouse staff time to adjust. The Judicial Council approved it unanimously on Nov. 19.

It was precipitated by skyrocketing COVID-19 infections, which prompted Gov. Tim Walz to reinstate tough restrictions on private gatherings, sports and entertainment venues and restaurant and bar services.

In a second vote, the Judicial Council also unanimously approved an order emphasizing remote courthouse counter services until Feb. 1, though in-person, over-the-counter services will remain available by appointment.

The orders were not scheduled to be heard during council’s Nov. 19 meeting. Gildea proposed them on an emergency basis.

She acknowledged that the new rules will create difficulties for the courts. Her own appearance before the council Thursday — its first meeting ever to publicly livestream — exemplified those problems. Her remote connection faltered at several points, sometimes garbling her voice and forcing the meeting to briefly shut down at one point.

Nonetheless, Gildea said, the judiciary’s experience over the past six months proves that Minnesota’s courts can successfully do their work and weather the pause.

The decisions coincided with the Minnesota Department of Health reporting a one-day total of 7,877 new COVID-19 infections and a one-day record 72 deaths. Unidentified court employees in Scott and LeSueur counties reportedly are among the 249,906 Minnesotans who have tested positive for COVID-19.

The order effectively re-imposes the court shutdown imposed in the opening weeks of the pandemic. Courts had, however, gradually begun holding more in-person jury trials — to the chagrin of the Teamsters 320 public employees’ union. But they were allowed to do so only if they adhered to strict mask-wearing, social-distance and disinfecting guidelines.

In September, even the civil trial moratorium was lifted. Thursday’s order re-imposes it.

Thursday’s decision overrides recommendations from the council’s Other Side Work Group, which had suggested that courts begin ramping down out-of-custody, in-person hearings but continue to hold in-person jury trials involving speedy-trial requests, without exception requirements.

Court of Appeals Judge Lucinda Jesson, a member of both the Judicial Council and the Other Side Work Group, told the council Thursday that the group met just over a week ago to formulate those recommendations. By Nov. 19, she suggested, they were effectively outdated.

“I supported those recommendations then,” Jesson said. “But they didn’t give us a crystal ball. Even though we knew things were difficult, we did not see the dramatic downturn in even the last week. … So I support your proposal, Chief Justice.”

7th Judicial District Chief Judge Jay Carlson offered a motion to pass Gildea’s emergency order. Other than for trials already in progress, he said, no criminal jury trials will commence until Feb. 1, 2020, unless the Judicial District’s chief judge, in consultation with Chief Justice Gildea, grants an exception.

They will be bound by an exception-granting process yet to be developed by the council’s Executive Committee. But it is already known that priority will be given to in-custody defendants who have demanded speedy trials.

The order allows other kinds of in-person hearings to be held only if there is an emergency necessitating one, or if holding a remote hearing is not possible.

While demands for speedy trials might trigger an exception to the rule, that will be true only for demands made prior to Nov. 20—the date of the order’s issuance. To wait until the order’s Nov. 30 effective date, council members worried, might invite a crush of speedy-trial demands between now and the end of the month.

Judge John Hoffman offered an amendment related to grand juries. He suggested that prosecutors also be allowed to apply for exceptions so they can continue bringing major criminal charges.

“I know it implicates bringing jurors in,” Hoffman said. “But I think there should be the same exception that applies to any emergency. I mean, you’ve got Hennepin and Ramsey counties trying to indict people for homicides. I don’t think that should wait until Feb. 1.” His idea was adopted.

The order puts no new limits on contested omnibus hearings or other proceedings that can be held remotely, council members said.

Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, the outgoing House Judiciary committee chair, responded to the new order on his law firm’s social media account. He called it a “major move.”

“All jury trials are temporarily suspended,” he wrote. “This is necessary, but its effects will be felt by the courts for a long time after trials resume, with a backlog of cases bogging down court calendars.”

Like this article? Gain access to all of our great content with a month-to-month subscription. Start your subscription.

About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

Leave a Reply