HANNIBAL | Courts in the Tenth Circuit have entered Operating Phase One, with in-person hearings allowed for only the “most critical” cases, while additional guidelines and provisions are enacted in response to the coronavirus following a May 4 order from the Missouri Supreme Court and a May 18 order from Presiding Judge Rachel Bringer Shepherd.
The Missouri Supreme Court announced an online interactive tool for circuits across the state to assess their current phase and how to proceed, based on certain criteria to maintain safety in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. Shepherd sent the May 18 order to members of the Tenth Circuit Bar Association and circuit clerks and sheriffs in Marion, Monroe and Ralls counties, detailing in-person hearings that could be conducted in the Tenth Circuit for the “most critical” cases.The order also emphasized enhanced safety procedures that are in place. This phase will last a minimum of 14 days before the decision would be made to move to phase two — which would allow in-person municipal court hearings to resume and jury trials to potentially resume in July.
Shepherd said while it's possible in-person bench trials could start up again June 1, court business like contacting attorneys and self-represented individuals, uncontested dissolution of marriage cases, adoptions and driver's license issues have been addressed through web video conferences and phone conferences since courtrooms closed to the public. Considerations of vulnerable individuals will be made for each case — and Shepherd said the conferencing methods in the courtroom are likely to continue when possible, regardless of meeting criteria established by the Missouri Supreme Court.
“These factors will be reviewed again before the decision is made to move to operation phases two and three,” Shepherd said. “However, it is anticipated that the opportunity to participate by video conference or phone for many proceedings will be available for the foreseeable future in all operational phases.”
Tenth Circuit officials and fellow stakeholders discussed each of the Missouri Supreme Court's criteria before making any decisions: no cases of COVID-19 in the court facility within 14 days; lessened or lack of stay-at-home orders or group gathering prohibitions in each community; improving health conditions related to COVID-19, including the population of vulnerable residents and local emergency care capacity; contact with local health officials about changes in levels of court activity; and contact with court partners, including juvenile officers, probation and parole officers, law enforcement officials and prosecuting attorneys.
Monroe County Clerk Heather Wheeler stressed the presence of COVID-19 in the community in the future could cause the process to move “backward or forward.”
Shepherd met with associate judges, attorneys, municipal judges, county commissioners and other court partners to determine that enhanced guidelines could be met, including the closure of public and common areas, required face masks or coverings for all court participants, social distancing practices and additional sanitization. And she expressed her gratitude for court practices which have helped keep everyone safe so far.
“Matters involving public safety continue to be heard, primarily by video conferencing technology,” Shepherd said. “We are grateful that the Missouri Supreme Court has provided the Tenth Circuit with equipment to allow the judges and many of the clerks to continue to work from home, move cases forward, and address safety issues through electronic hearings that minimize risk of exposure to the community, litigants, court partners and court personnel.”
Julia Chaney-Faughn, an attorney with Cruse and Chaney-Faughn Law Firm, agreed the Missouri Supreme Court's plan has been focused with everyone's safety and health in mind.
“I believe the plan the courts have implemented is in the best interest of the public and should continue (to provide a) safe and healthy environment for the members of the public, attorneys, court staff and other employees in the courthouse,” Chaney-Faughn said.