Iowa Supreme Court extends mask mandate for courtrooms

Face masks will continue to be required in all Iowa court-controlled spaces “regardless of a person’s vaccination status,” under an order the Iowa Supreme Court issued on December 6.

Like the mask mandate the high court announced in August, the requirement to wear face coverings in spaces under the judicial branch’s jurisdiction “applies statewide and does not depend on a particular county’s or area’s positivity rate or transmission status.” It does not apply to areas of county courthouses under the control of county governments. (Some boards of supervisors, including those governing Iowa’s largest counties, have approved mask mandates for county buildings and offices.)

It’s been months since Governor Kim Reynolds encouraged, let alone required, Iowans to wear masks in indoor public spaces. Fortunately, the state’s judicial branch is empowered to set its own COVID-19 mitigation policies, and has generally followed scientific consensus about the value of face coverings to reduce transmission. The Delta variant, which has been the dominant coronavirus strain in Iowa for months, spreads easily in close quarters. Legal proceedings often force attorneys, litigants, court employees, and jurors to be in the same room for hours.

The latest order signed by Chief Justice Susan Christensen establishes several other policies and practices to adapt judicial proceedings to the pandemic, informed by recommendations from a court-appointed task force and public comments.

For civil cases, “Courts may direct, and parties and attorneys may request” that proceedings other than trials “be held by videoconference or telephone with availability of appropriate technology.” While civil trials “are presumed to be held in person,” the court may allow jury and bench trials to proceed by videoconference or telephone “with the parties’ consent and in the court’s discretion.”

For various kinds of criminal proceedings (but not criminal trials), the Supreme Court is allowing the use of remote technology and waivers of personal appearance by the defendant. In addition, “Judicial officers are encouraged to consider pretrial release options available” under state law. Many jails and prisons have been hot spots for COVID-19 transmission, because social distancing is virtually impossible.

The latest order also permits remote technology to be used for certain family law or juvenile delinquency proceedings, as well as oral arguments in the Supreme Court or Iowa Court of Appeals.

Full text of Iowa Supreme Court’s December 6 order:

Top photo of the Keokuk County courthouse in Sigourney taken by user Cburnett in 2007 and available via Wikimedia Commons.

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