In March when COVID-19 started sweeping across the country, the judicial system around the country and here in Ohio ground to a halt. Courts were closed, hearings and trials cancelled and continued, and everyone tried to figure out how to be safe in large groups while not violating someone’s rights. Both the Ohio General Assembly and the Ohio Supreme Court addressed these issues and filing deadlines were automatically extended, statute of limitations were extended, speedy trial was tolled. From mid-March through April 2020, civil matters all but completely stopped, criminal matters where the defendant was not incarcerated were continued for months, and only criminal matters where the defendant was incarcerated proceeded, albeit by video or in-person for limited purposes such as TPO hearings and bond hearings.
Now that Governor DeWine has announced that Ohio will slowly start to re-open, courts are trying to figure out how to comply with the continued stay-at-home order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people but proceed with their dockets in the era of social-distancing. Each court has its own challenges to address – large court dockets, small courthouses in rural areas, multiple courts in one building, etc. As attorneys, when going to a new court we would review their local rules of practice. Now we also have to figure out how each court is proceeding with COVID-19 social distancing practice.
Courts that I am familiar with seem to be taking different approaches, some of which may be because some are very large and some are smaller and rural, but it is apparent each is trying its best to protected everyone and everyone’s rights. I have heard some larger courts are suggesting prosecutors and defense attorneys actually follow the Rules of Criminal Procedure to reduce the number of pre-trial continuances and to make the hearings more productive! Other smaller courts have distributed surveys to attorneys frequently appearing in court to gather information about how best to proceed. But all of the courts have some general “new” court procedures, which include:
- Court Filings: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most courts have not permitted in-person filings of new cases (with some exceptions such as civil protection orders and emergency custody) and have required filings by mail, fax, or e-mail. For those courts with established e-filing rules and procedures, this was a non-issue. For those that did not have e-filing capabilities it has been more of a struggle. Most courts, for May 2020, the prohibition against in-person filings continues as clerks’ offices remain closed to the public.
- Court Appearances: Some courts are continuing to conduct pre-trials via telephone/video whenever possible and are limiting in-person hearings. Some courts have established alternating days for in-person hearing for the judges on the same floor to limit the number of persons on the floor at one time. Criminal jury trials and motion hearings are still being continued by the court and being reset for later in the year. Of course, as more trials and hearings are continued, eventually there will be a reckoning when all of these must be heard – it’s not going to be a fun couple of months for attorneys, judges, or court staff.
- Court Access: Court buildings are re-opening with restrictions on access. Courts are requiring anyone entering the building to wear a mask. Some courts are only permitting those with scheduled hearings to enter (no one may attend with them). Attorneys are also being denied entry into some courts unless they are there for a scheduled court hearing.
One thing is for certain, court as we knew it before will not likely return. The days of people coming to court with two or three other people (or children) and mulling about for hours waiting in crowded hallways for their case to be called are over. Attorneys stopping in for a quick chat with a prosecutor and the judge about an off-docket matter are no longer going to occur. Defendants not contacting their attorney and waiting until the first pre-trial date to talk with them can no longer occur. Whether these changes are for better or worse they are going to permanently change the way court, and in particular criminal court matters, operate.