Shawano County courthouse closed due to COVID-19 outbreak but DA won’t go virtual

Shawano County Courthouse
The Branch 1 courtroom in the Shawano County Courthouse. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

After a case of COVID-19 was confirmed among the county employees who work in the Shawano County Courthouse, the building was shut down until Oct. 5. But the Shawano County District Attorney Greg Parker continues to make his entire staff come into the office, an email obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner shows. 

In the email, a staff member writes that Parker “got his way” and the staff will continue to work in-person.

The staff of the district attorney are still working out of the office even though the county’s Branch 2 courtroom will be closed for two weeks and the Branch 1 courtroom will be holding all hearings remotely over zoom. 

Both courtrooms, the district attorney’s office and the clerk of courts office, are all located on the same floor of the building and share the same central hallway. 

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Shawano County Clerk of Courts Ethan Schmidt told the Shawano Leader that most hearings would be rescheduled virtually and that members of the public won’t have access to the building, even if they have a court appearance. 

“What’s going on right now is Branch 2 courtroom is closed for the next two weeks and things will be rescheduled,” Schmidt said. “Branch 1 is going to try to handle some hearings by Zoom. Others are being rescheduled today.”

Shawano County, like much of the state, is in the middle of a major spike in COVID-19 cases. After months of a low number in infections, the prevalence of the virus has steadily risen in the area. As of Tuesday afternoon, Shawano County has had 588 confirmed cases of the virus, with 134 of those cases being reported in the last two weeks. On Sept. 16, the last day local data was available, the county confirmed 19 new cases. 

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) lists Shawano County as having high COVID-19 activity levels and a high COVID-19 burden. The county’s current COVID-19 case rate is 324.8 cases per 100,000 people, according to DHS. 

Two positive cases in a single workplace trigger a facility-wide investigation by the local health department, according to the Shawano-Menominee Counties Health Department guidance. 

County Administrative Coordinator Brent Miller said “it’s really pathetic” and “fake news” to report on the outbreak and the district attorney’s refusal to work remotely. 

“All the courts, every place that’s shut down, the courts still had to operate because of the statutes, they’re all doing everything by Zoom,” Miller said. “We’ve deep cleaned it. We still have to meet statutory obligations for people in jail. He has to meet the obligations put out by the court.” 

While the county’s judges are holding hearings by zoom, the district attorney is continuing to come to the office, the email shows. While there are statutory time limits for a person to appear in court, those hearings can take place virtually and don’t require a prosecutor’s presence in the building. 

Even if the building is deep cleaned, as Miller says, studies show that COVID-19 is largely spread as an aerosol — meaning that intensive sanitation of the building can help, but not as much as proper ventilation, access to outdoor air and physical distance between coworkers, according to CDC recommendations

Outdoor air and proper ventilation aren’t easy to access in the small Shawano County Courthouse built in 1958 — the building’s windows don’t open. 

The district attorney’s office, according to a building floor plan, includes an area in which three staff members share the same space.

This summer, each circuit court in the state was required to send a safety plan to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Shawano County’s plan stated that remote proceedings will be used when in-person meetings are not constitutionally or statutorily required. 

“Court officials will use best efforts to conduct proceedings remotely and will only schedule in-person proceedings taking into consideration constitutional and statutory requirements, the nature of proceedings and the request of the litigants and attorneys,” the plan states

Parker says that it’s necessary for him and his staff to remain in the office to protect the due process rights of people accused of crimes in Shawano County.

“You see criminals don’t take a break even when COVID-19 is active in our community and elsewhere,” he says. “So my staff and I have to continue to work — as we have since the pandemic has started. We have every day so that the criminal justice system does not breakdown. We can’t shirk our duties to continue to protect the community and the citizens of both Shawano and Menominee County.”

“Because my staff and I are dedicated in keeping the criminal justice system working to protect our citizens and victims of crime from those who continue to ignore the COVID virus and continue to commit crimes,” he continued. “We also have a duty to the people who have been accused of crimes so that we protect their due process rights – yes we do care about the accused rights — I’m kind of funny like that because when I took my Oath of Office — I swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the Wisconsin Constitution and the laws of the State of Wisconsin as it relates to everyone.”

He added that other county employees were also in the building, even though it’s closed to the public. He did not say if those employees, such as the county clerk and treasurer, were working alone in offices or closely with staff.

The Shawano-Menominee Counties Health Department did not respond to a request for comment. 

Tom Sheehan, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Court System, said that the state would have no control over the decisions of a local DA. 

“The court system wouldn’t have a role in determining district attorney office operations,” Sheehan said.