Iowa Judicial Branch not rushing back to normal practices

Governor Kim Reynolds has enacted three rounds of reopening businesses and venues across Iowa this month already, and bars are next in line to resume indoor service on May 28. The governor has argued, “We have to move forward” as we “learn to live with” having novel coronavirus in our communities.

However, the judicial branch is approaching the COVID-19 pandemic more cautiously. Under an order Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen issued on May 22, in-person bench trials will remain on hold until July 13, and jury trials won’t resume in Iowa until September 14.

Since Iowa courts began changing their operations in mid-March, judges have been encouraged to conduct most business by telephone or videoconference, with only certain “emergency or essential” matters occurring in person. Attorneys and parties in such proceedings are instructed to inform the court and opposing counsel “if they reasonably suspect” that any participant “may have an elevated risk” of transmitting COVID-19.

Christensen has regularly revised the timeline for resuming standard practices as coronavirus case numbers increased in Iowa. An April 6 order foresaw resuming non-emergency criminal bench trials on June 1, civil bench trials on June 15, criminal jury trials on July 13, and civil jury trials on August 3.

In a May 22 news release, the chief justice said,

“We know that people and families with pending cases are anxious to have their day in court, but we must first ensure that the public and court personnel have confidence that appropriate cautionary measures have been taken to protect their health when entering our courtrooms. Crowded courtrooms, heavy dockets and jury trials require Iowans to gather in county courthouses and courtrooms in close proximity and for extended periods of time. Those situations are contrary to social distancing and other public health directives.”

Christensen added, “We have spoken with public health experts, court users, legal organizations, and members of our new Jump Start Jury Trials Task Force. It is nearly unanimous that, at this time, we cannot safely resume face-to-face court proceedings on June 1 as we initially hoped.”

The newest Iowa Supreme Court Justice Matthew McDermott is chairing the task force on jury trials, established in early May. Christensen has named Supreme Court Justice Thomas Waterman to lead a similar task force on family law trials. Both bodies include judges, attorneys, and court administrators from around the state and are charged with developing temporary policies and procedures for safely operating courts in light of the pandemic.

I’ve enclosed below the full texts of the judicial branch’s May 22 news release and Christensen’s latest orders on adjusting court operations and prioritizing cases and duties.

The chief justice’s measured approach is commendable. The governor has insisted that available data on COVID-19 in Iowa point to positive trends and that “we have to get things back to normal.” Reynolds appointed Christensen to the highest court and chose her (rather than the chief justice at the time) to administer the oath at the governor’s 2019 inauguration. Rather than copying the executive’s decisions to return to business as usual, with the burden on Iowans in vulnerable groups to stay home, the state’s top judicial official has carefully considered the views of public health experts and stakeholders.

Worth noting: some of Iowa’s busiest courtrooms are in communities that have experienced high numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, including Waterloo (site of the first judicial District Court), Sioux City (third District Court), Des Moines (fifth District Court), and Cedar Rapids (sixth District Court).

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the judicial branch announced these orders late on a Friday before a holiday weekend, ensuring that the policies would receive relatively little public attention. The timing could be seen as a gesture by the chief justice to reduce media coverage that might otherwise embarrass the governor. The earliest journalists could ask Reynolds about the judiciary’s contrasting approach would be at her next scheduled news conference on Tuesday, May 26.
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Appendix 1: Full text of May 22 news release from the Iowa Judicial Branch

Today, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a supervisory order stating face-to-face court proceedings will commence July 13, 2020, and jury trials will commence September 14, 2020. Some counties may begin face-to-face proceedings before July 13 if the county courthouse is open to the public and the court operations in that county meet COVID-19 safety protocols recommended by state court administration.

In response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, only emergency and essential hearings have been held face-to-face since March 14, 2020. Since that time, the majority of court proceedings have been conducted by videoconference or teleconference. The order encourages the continued use of teleconferences and videoconferences whenever possible and extends many of the remote hearing deadlines until the end of the year.

“We know that people and families with pending cases are anxious to have their day in court, but we must first ensure that the public and court personnel have confidence that appropriate cautionary measures have been taken to protect their health when entering our courtrooms,” Chief Justice Susan Christensen said. “Crowded courtrooms, heavy dockets and jury trials require Iowans to gather in county courthouses and courtrooms in close proximity and for extended periods of time. Those situations are contrary to social distancing and other public health directives.”

In an effort to balance safety concerns with critical court system functions, Chief Justice Christensen said, “We have spoken with public health experts, court users, legal organizations, and members of our new Jump Start Jury Trials Task Force. It is nearly unanimous that, at this time, we cannot safely resume face-to-face court proceedings on June 1 as we initially hoped. On July 13, once protocols are in place for safely opening our courtrooms to the public, we will cautiously move forward with face-to-face, nonjury trials. For the two months following that time, we will continue to work towards preparing our courtrooms for jury trials set to commence September 14.”

State court administration is currently working with county and public health officials to determine the criteria and protocols which include adequate supplies of personal protection equipment, appropriate screening of all who enter the courthouse, ability to maintain social distancing through all court procedures, and high level cleaning. State court administration will also monitor for any regional outbreaks of COVID-19.

The supreme court issued two additional orders today. One lists priority cases and duties to guide judges, magistrates, and court staff in the scheduling, hearing, and handling of cases. Judges, magistrates, and staff are directed to exercise their judgment and give priority based on the facts and circumstances of each case. The subsequent order creates the Jumpstart Family Law Task Force to make recommendations to the supreme court to help facilitate decision making on how to proceed with family law trials when they resume, including ways to prioritize family law cases that have been postponed by COVID-19. The recommendations are to ensure parties’ fundamental rights while protecting the health and safety of parties, court staff, attorneys, judges, and all Iowans who access courthouses.

The full orders are posted on the Iowa Judicial Branch COVID-19 Information and Updates webpage at: https://www.iowacourts.gov/iowa-courts/covid-19-information-and-updates/ .

Appendix 2: May 22 order signed by Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christiansen

Appendix 3: May 22 supervisory order on prioritizing cases and duties in the Iowa court system

Top image: Official photo of Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen.

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