St. Louis County Courts building in Clayton. (Photo: T.L. Witt)
Process changes at some local Missouri courts that occurred in response to COVID-19 may be here to stay regardless of COVID-19 community levels, judges are saying.
Cole County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Jon Beetem said that while the court had previously used occasional video, like for some confined defendants who waived their rights to confrontation, out-of-state witnesses and divorce cases where one party was located at a military site, the pandemic prompted the court to overhaul its equipment and video capability.
“To give you an example, the first few weeks of the pandemic, I ran my courtroom off my iPad,” Beetem said.
Fast forward to March 2022: Missouri’s courts are increasing their in-person proceedings and masks have become optional rather than a requirement, but judges are finding that some parts of court emergency policies make sense even with ebbing COVID-19 levels.
Remote proceedings in uncontested matters
Courtroom policy on which proceedings end up remote or in person varies based on individual judges.
But Presiding Judge Michael J. Stelzer with the City of St. Louis Circuit Court said that across divisions, less formal discussions across all the court’s divisions can be easily held online, such as motions for continuances and setting cases for trial.
“I would say the less formal the procedure, the more likely the judges are to use Webex,” Stelzer said. “It’s not particularly a good use of the lawyer’s time to travel to the courthouse for literally a one-or-two-minute discussion with the judge about this and then leave to travel back to their office.”
Jackson County Circuit Court’s Presiding Judge J. Dale Youngs said he anticipates continuing to conduct case management conferences virtually.
“So I think no matter what the COVID numbers look like, I think we’ve realized that those kinds of proceedings, and others, can be safely and properly done remotely and I think we’ll continue to see that in the future,” Youngs said.
Others include uncontested matters, such as approval hearings for the settlement of a minor’s claim, a wrongful death action, and approving a person’s ability to settle their structured settlement payments that they’re receiving for one lump sum payment.
“If they’re traveling from one county to another or several counties away to appear in court, it doesn’t make sense to do that just for a setting, or something routine, if they can just jump on Webex and get it done,” Pulaski County Presiding Judge John Beger said.
Beetem said that his juvenile docket is almost entirely on video. While he prefers in-person review hearings upon first meeting parents of minors before him, he said that virtual hearings have greatly increased participation of parents.
“That’s probably the biggest advantage I’ve seen in juvenile cases,” Beetem said.
In a March 10 town hall meeting for the St. Louis County Circuit Court, its judges relayed the court’s plans to increase in-person proceedings. The court has phased out most of its reliance on Webex already in many of its divisions, but it is honoring summons sent out in January that still offered virtual proceedings as an option in cases before the associate civil and criminal courts. Associate Circuit Judge Jeffrey Medler estimated phasing out Webex for those proceedings by early June.
Presiding Judge Mary Otts said in the meeting that excluding appearances and evidentiary hearings that require the administration of an oath that must be held in person, informal proceedings may continue virtually rather than in person based on the judge’s discretion.
“That’s not to say that Webex is being abandoned,” Otts said. “That is not the case. There will be some efficiencies and some manners in which the judges in the associate criminal courts use Webex.”
Whether or not to go remote in court isn’t the only major shift in Missouri courtrooms.
Voir dire that’s here to stay
Stelzer said that for years, hundreds of jurors showed up on Monday mornings in St. Louis and the court had a “rough idea” of who needed jurors.
“It was a cattle call,” Stelzer said. “You had people lined up outside the courthouse coming in for jury duty, there’d be so many.”
Now, Stelzer said the court determines which cases are going to trial at least a week or two weeks ahead of time. Larger cases, which might have multiple criminal defendants, are scheduled between six to eight weeks in advance. Stelzer said it’s harder to find jurors who can participate in a longer trial, so jurors are brought in specifically for that case a week before.
“That system, how we’re doing that, was really developed in response to COVID,” Stelzer said. “We just could not bring in a large number of jurors like we used to.”
Stelzer said this has created more certainty for attorneys as they approach a jury trial in a given week.
“I think they’re not waiting around wondering if they’re going to get jurors or whether their case is going out,” Stelzer said. “It’s a little more certain that you’re going to trial, and there will be jurors for your trial.”
While Stelzer doesn’t anticipate ever eliminating the new voir dire process, the court is increasing the size of its weekly jury pools by April 18.
Youngs of Jackson County said he anticipates his court’s nimble post-March 2020 approach to jury selection will be here to stay at least in the next few months.
“So I don’t anticipate if things continue to look good, we’ll not go back to the way we usually have done things,” Youngs said. “But for the time being, I think we’ll continue to summon jurors, select jurors for our cases, and hold cases the way we’ve been doing it.”
Youngs said that looking back on cases where attorneys highlighted the importance of the opportunity to explore the backgrounds of potential jurors leads him to believe that returning to a 250-strong jury pool is best.
“I think lawyers place a fair amount of importance on the jury selection process, and rightly so,” Youngs said.
At the same time, he’s received feedback from lawyers that they’ve had no trouble adapting to questioning smaller jury pools in less time.
“Because with the smaller group, they can be more efficient,” Youngs said. “You don’t have 72 people that you’re asking questions of, you have 35 people.”
Beger said that during COVID peaks in Pulaski County the court repurposed other buildings, including a community hall, a middle school gym and a Lion’s Club that held bingo, to spread out potential jury members for jury selection. Those precautions have subsided since then, and more recent jury trials are conducted the same as before, with the exception of some masks peppered throughout the jury box.
“I had a jury trial yesterday in Waynesville,” Beger said on March 16. “We just did it the good old-fashioned way.”
But in the event of a new variant or a rise in community levels, Stelzer said his court is prepared for whatever comes.
“We’ve had two years of doing it, and if we had go back — and I’m not saying it would be fun or that people would like it — but at least we have the orders crafted in place and we have procedures that we could put in place that we’ve had in place previously,” Stelzer said.
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