In response to increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases across the state, the Administrative Office of the Courts has mandated all trials be canceled until next February and that most in-person hearings be conducted virtually instead.
On Friday, state Chief Justice John Minton issued two orders mandating that trials be put on hold and that hearings be held virtually except for some emergency situations. The orders also mandate that grand jury proceedings be held virtually or canceled. The orders also limit who will be allowed into courthouses.
The order also allows evictions to proceed if certain conditions are met, such as if they comply with provisions of the federal CARES Act.
The orders make provisions mandatory that were previously only recommendations. The mandates take effect on Monday.
“Each day, the number of (COVID-19) cases increases,” Minton said in a phone interview Friday. “The general projection is that it is going to continue.
“Obviously, the governor has issued significant limits” on activities, Minton said.
Earlier this week, Gov. Andy Beshear placed limits on gatherings, ordered all schools to go to virtual learning and ordered restaurants to go to carry-out, delivery or outside dining only in response to the pandemic.
“It appeared to us, the whole court, we certainly needed to do what we could to protect the public,” Minton said.
The orders postpone all civil and criminal jury trials to Feb. 21. When trials resume, those involving defendants in custody will be given first priority.
Grand juries are ordered to be held virtually or postponed if virtual is not an option. Minton said postponing trials was a necessity given the difficulty courts will have seating during the pandemic.
“We have been holding trials .. but the risk of exposure is huge,” Minton said.
Medically vulnerable people would be unable to serve on juries and the closing of schools takes people who would otherwise be available for jury duty out of the pool of candidates.
“There’s a large section of the population for whom jury selection would be impossible,” Minton said.
Although some courts have been able to hold trials, Supreme Court justices felt it was necessary to issue uniform mandates for courts, Minton said.
“We felt the uniform system was better than piecemeal, so everyone across the commonwealth was treated the same,” he said. “We thought it would be safest and fairest to be uniform in our approach. “
Postponing trials is a concern, Minton said, but courts should continue to use technology to handle other court business. Hearings have been held virtually for most cases since the spring.
Technology to hold virtual hearings has been available for years. “Now, we have to learn to use it,” Minton said.
“... The courts are still open and the business of the courts is going to go on. It’s going to require us to adapt” to technology, he said.
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse