For at least the next month courts will operate a little differently in Dane County due to the new coronavirus.
Under an order signed Thursday by Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn, judges will hold more hearings by telephone or video conference, or will postpone them entirely, to reduce the potential for exposure to the virus.
The order sets temporary guidelines for handling various types of cases that will be effective from March 16 to April 17, although some judges have already begun to reschedule some cases.
“This is really uncharted territory,” Bailey-Rihn said. “A lot of thought has gone into these, balancing the functioning of the court with the safety of jurors, lawyers, litigants and others.”
The temporary guidelines were created to reduce the number of people who have to come to the courthouse, reducing the chance of transmitting the virus.
“These guidelines are in place to ensure the continuous performance of the court’s essential functions and operations and yet seek to mitigate the risk that our employees, lawyers, litigants and jurors will be exposed,” the order states. “The guidelines incorporate use of videoconferencing and teleconferencing to minimize contact, when appropriate; follow social distancing practices; and temporarily suspend some non-essential court functions.”
Court staff will notify case participants if there are changes in schedules. If participants don’t hear from court staff, they are to assume nothing in the schedule has changed, Bailey-Rihn said. They can also contact the court or check the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website, also known as CCAP, to double-check upcoming dates.
Some of the temporary guidelines are:
- In civil, small claims and family cases, all contested matters requiring in-person appearances — such as jury trials, small claims and custody and placement hearings — are suspended. Any hearing that can be done by phone, though, will proceed as scheduled.
- In criminal cases, any proceeding, including trials, involving a defendant who is not in custody may be rescheduled or held by telephone or video conference. Proceedings involving defendants who are in jail will go on as scheduled. But judges can also decide how to proceed, independent of the temporary guidelines.
- Bail hearings generally held by court commissioners at the Dane County Jail will only be held in cases that must go on due to deadline rules, and may be held by video if the jail can arrange it.
Bailey-Rihn said if it comes to the point that closing the courthouse appears necessary, that decision would be made in consultation with other stakeholders, such as the state and county. In that instance, she said, plans would be made to operate remotely as much as possible.
But, she said, “That is not on our radar.”
U.S. District Court
A few blocks away in U.S. District Court, cases will go on as scheduled, Chief Judge James Peterson wrote Thursday, “so long as we can do so safely.”
“Most work in the Western District of Wisconsin does not require the assembly of large groups or close physical proximity,” Peterson wrote. But jury trials pose “special concerns,” he wrote, which will be evaluated as needed.
Clerk of Court Peter Oppeneer said no jury trials are on the federal court calendar during the next several weeks.