HANNIBAL | Each courthouse in the Tenth Judicial Circuit has handled hearings, conferences and other court business while practicing safety protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The Missouri Supreme Court amended its guidelines on Friday for its gradual plan to reopen each courtroom in the state.
Before Presiding Judge Rachel Bringer Shepherd issued her May 18 order, she consulted with members of the Tenth Circuit Bar Association and circuit clerks and sheriffs in Marion, Monroe and Ralls counties, detailing how in-person hearings could be conducted in the Tenth Circuit for the “most critical” cases. Shepherd said all courts in the Tenth Circuit will continue to follow any changes to guidelines set forth by the Missouri Supreme Court — which also allow for local courts to enact more stringent guidelines, if needed.
Since March, each courthouse in Marion, Monroe and Ralls counties have had signs on the doors addressing visitors unable to enter due to coronavirus-related concerns or other health issues. Instructions are also posted to show visitors how to conduct court business. Those reading the signs can learn, among other things, how to obtain an order of protection, a dissolution of marriage form, submit a 96-hour hold mental health-related request using a drop box, or to contact the circuit clerk for more information.
Shepherd said face coverings have been required since Phase One began in May, and the courtroom occupancy restriction will remain at that level of 10 people. Technology like WebEx videoconferencing has allowed Shepherd to conduct many hearings without an in-person proceeding.
“Many types of hearings have been able to be held via WebEx videoconference, such as guilty pleas, probation violation hearings, consensual dissolution of marriage hearings, contested contempt hearings, treatment court meetings and hearings, and adoption hearings,” Shepherd said. “These hearings have involved litigants who are represented by attorneys as well as litigants who represent themselves.”
The Tenth Annual Guardian Ad Litem Training for the Tenth Circuit took place this year on a WebEx video teleconference, with speakers from Kansas City, Hannibal and Columbia training more than 30 attorneys and judges across more than eight counties, and Shepherd said technology has allowed several clerks to work from home.
Each of the circuit's courts are currently in Phase 2 of the four-phase reopening plan. At this time, jury trials are not permitted. Shepherd said different county courts could be at different phases of operation depending on the local situation regarding positive coronavirus cases. The Supreme Court will weigh “gateway criteria” for each individual court with the goal of gradually reopening Missouri courts with a focus on the health and safety of each court's litigants, witnesses, victims, jurors, attorneys, judicial employees and other individuals involved in judicial proceedings.
“At this time, all of the counties of the Tenth Circuit are in Operating Phase 2. The County Commissions of Marion, Monroe, and Ralls counties have ordered equipment recommended by the Supreme Court in order to hold jury trials in the courtrooms,” Shepherd said. “Under the guidelines of the Missouri Supreme Court, the Tenth Circuit will not be able to move into Phase 3 until the equipment arrives and the gateway criteria for moving into a new operational phase have been met, including 'improving COVID-19 health conditions over a 14 day period in the community.'”
On Monday, the Marion County Health Department reported 17 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 132 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. There have been 68 active cases, 62 patients are recovered. Missouri health officials said the state's number of new coronavirus cases rose by 1,123 on Monday, totaling 43,050 with 1,201 deaths.
Shepherd said the Tenth Judicial Circuit will continue making any changes needed to comply with each of the Missouri Supreme Court's orders along with continuing practices already in place — the Marion, Monroe and Ralls County Commissions have been supplied face coverings and personnel to perform temperature checks since March.
Shepherd wished to commend everyone throughout the judicial system who has taken an active role during the pandemic.
“I am very grateful for the assistance of all of the court partners to work together, embrace new technology, and explore effective ways to allow court hearings to move forward during this difficult time,” Shepherd said.