IRON RANGE — Earlier this week, Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Sally Tarnowski said that the St. Louis County courthouses on the Iron Range are mostly vacant as staff adhere to an order from the Minnesota Supreme Court directing no new trials in state courts until late next month.
Staff at courthouses in Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia began to implement the new order Monday morning. Several hours later, the Minnesota Health Department reported a second case of COVID-19 in the county, as state totals rose sharply to 235, accounting for one death last weekend. As of Wednesday afternoon, the number of cases jumped to 262.
“Most court staff are working from home at this point,” Tarnowski told the Mesabi Daily News on Monday. “We’re giving our staff managers and supervisors and judges time to figure out how this is going to work. We’re trying to keep it down to a limited number of judges in the buildings, with one judge at a time in Hibbing and Virginia and two or three in Duluth.”
After a series of court updates, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea filed her order last Friday to continue state court operations under Gov. Tim Walz’s March 12 statewide peacetime emergency declaration. The following day, the St. Louis County Board announced the first presumptive case in the state’s largest county. The new order follows a series of court updates as the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the state.
“Additional restrictions on public activities have therafter been imposed for public health and safety reasons,” Gildea writes. “State government facilities have remained open for business, including the judicial branch’s district and appellate courts, though operations have been limited as recommended by public health officials.”
The new order says that proceedings before the Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court will continue as scheduled. The courts will implement procedures to allow hearings to be conducted remotely.
“State courts remain open for business on a limited basis, with access to court facilities subject to conditions imposed at some locations by county officials,” Gildea writes.
Public access to courtrooms is limited to people in cases and their attorneys and necessary court staff. The clerk’s counter will be limited to electric and telephone services until further order of the court. The media can request access with 24 hours’ notice.
The order addresses proceedings in state courts that require in-person hearings.
• No new grand jury or jury trials will be heard before April 22. Ongoing trials will continue.
• Adults in custody will have their criminal matters heard in the courtroom: bail review; Rule 8 hearings; omnibus hearings that do not require live testimony; plea hearings; sentencing hearings; and probation revocation hearings if testimony can be provided remotely. Hearings can be heard remotely.
• The same goes for criminal juvenile matters for those in custody.
On Tuesday, Gildea issued an order in response to the governor’s executive order to suspend evictions during the COVID-19 peacetime emergency. She amended the original order to show that effective Wednesday hearings will be held in the courtroom “on an emergency basis” in the following case types: housing/eviction matters when there is a showing of individual or public health or safety at risk, which includes eviction actions alleging a violation of state statutes; civil commitment; emergency change-of-custody requests; and guardianship. The parties and the attorneys may appear remotely.
Orders for protection cases are addressed in a portion of the original order describing that hearing will take place in the courtroom “for any case type in which the request for relief presents an immediate liberty concern, or when public or personal safety concerns are paramount.” Other than those hearings, all other proceedings will be held by ITV or any other remote technology that permits people and their attorneys to appear without being in the courtroom.
Tarnowski is the chief judge for the Sixth District, which encompasses six courthouses in St. Louis, Carlton, Cook and Lake counties in the northeastern part of the state. She has been in constant contact with the 10 chief justice in Minnesota. “Public safety is a concern for us,” she said.
“We are trying to ensure that public confidence in the court is maintained and people’s liberty rights and their rights under the law are ensured,” she said. “We’re going to hold hearings under the ‘super high’ and ‘high priority’ for as long as the court’s are open.”
So, what happens to people who have cases going unheard? “We are working hard to reset hearings,” Tarnowski said.
Meanwhile, the Sixth District treatment court system — including the Iron Range-based alcohol and drug and mental health courts — will not be held for two weeks while judges, attorneys team members and staff work to get remote access setup. In the meantime, probation and St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services case managers remain in contact with speciality court participants to check in and to connect them with out-of-court services, and treatment plans and mental health services are being worked out and monitored by those specific professionals on the court team. After that time, appearances will be done remotely to comply with Gildea’s order.
This week, the court building in Hibbing has been mostly silent. “Empty,” Tarnowski said. “Most everything is being done remotely. Right now, we don’t want people gathering. The judicial branch as a whole wants to prevent people from coming into the building.”
For now, the state courts cases heard on the Iron Range and in Duluth will be done using ITV or other forms of technology. “We’re making sure we have secure and reliable connections for them,” Tarnowski said. “We’re experiencing a few issues with connectability. We need to iron this out.”
Considering the uncertainty of the weeks ahead, Tarnowki noted the possibility of all court staff working from their homes. “Eventually, the judges might be home,” she said. “We’re working on everyone being able to attend hearing through technological hookups in their homes.”