Less than a week after Wisconsin court officials said some in-person appearances and jury trials would continue amid the COVID-19 pandemic because they involved “liberty issues,” the state Supreme Court issued two orders Sunday effectively halting those functions.
In the week since courts instituted a partial slowdown of the justice system, the number of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin has increased to more than 400 and 5 people have died.
Court officials said they were attempting to walk the line between public health and the constitutional rights of defendants — especially in cases with statutory time limits.
“Continuing to have jury trials would put members of the public, jurors, witnesses, law enforcement personnel, lawyers, judges, and court employees at an unacceptable level of risk to their health and for some at an unacceptable level of risk for the loss of their lives,” the Supreme Court order states.
For now, all of Wisconsin’s courts are open yet functioning almost entirely remotely via telephone, videoconference and electronic filing.
Any jury trials scheduled through May 22 will be rescheduled and in-person appearances won’t be held until at least April 30.
“We are taking these steps not only to protect public health, but also to help ensure continued and effective operation of all our courts for the people of Wisconsin,” said Chief Justice Patience Drake Roggensack. “Our circuit court judges have taken strategic, proactive steps to keep each of their courts operating as safely and smoothly as possible since the start of this public health emergency. These orders provide another tool to use in that effort.”
In addition to the postponement of in-person appearances and trials, the Supreme Court pushed back oral arguments set for March 30 and April 1.
Prior to this statewide order, individual county courts were set to determine their own local rules that varied widely across the state. Now, each court is under the same order.
Last week, Catherine Dorl, director of the trial division in the state public defender’s office, said it was fundamentally unfair to defendants to continue to hold jury trials during a pandemic.
“I’m sure we can all come up with logistics that can ensure social distancing, but this doesn’t take into consideration if you’re on trial and your freedom is in jeopardy, do you want jurors hearing your case that have their own life and death worries?” Dorl said. “I don’t know anyone who isn’t concerned about their job, how they’re going to pay rent, if their parents will be okay, access to healthcare if they do contract the virus. Logistics can be worked out, I still have concerns about the fairness of pushing trials under these really unprecedented circumstances.”