Minnesota courts to shed mask mandate July 6; plan to keep some hearings virtual in the future

As of July 6, masks will no longer be required in courthouses, the Minnesota Judicial Branch announced Tuesday. The courts are shedding the COVID-19 Preparedness Plan put in place in 2020 and gearing up to resume in-person hearings by Sept. 6. “As the pandemic’s impact on Minnesota continues to recede, so too will some of […]

Minnesota courts to shed mask mandate July 6; plan to keep some hearings virtual in the future

As of July 6, masks will no longer be required in courthouses, the Minnesota Judicial Branch announced Tuesday.

The courts are shedding the COVID-19 Preparedness Plan put in place in 2020 and gearing up to resume in-person hearings by Sept. 6.

“As the pandemic’s impact on Minnesota continues to recede, so too will some of the health and safety protocols that were in place in our district and appellate courts,” said Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea.

SOME PROCEEDINGS WILL REMAIN VIRTUAL

Judges, employees, and courthouse visitors still will be allowed to wear face coverings in court buildings if they so choose, although judges may direct individuals to remove masks as necessary during court hearings.

Criminal jury trials, civil jury trials, court trials in major cases, criminal settlement conferences and grand jury proceedings have remained in-person during the pandemic. Lesser offenses have been handled virtually. Misdemeanor criminal trials and contested hearings will resume in-person Aug. 2.

All other district court proceedings are being held remotely unless the chief judge of the judicial district grants permission for an in-person proceeding.

VIRTUAL HEARINGS MAY BECOME ROUTINE IN SOME CASES

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

On June 24, in her annual State of the Judiciary address, Gildea mentioned lessons learned during the pandemic and indicated that virtual hearings could become routine for some cases.

“We heard strong support for the idea that we should continue to conduct at least some portion of court hearings online even after the pandemic,” she said. “This is especially true when we asked about uncontested hearings — hearings where there is no evidence being presented or testimony taken.”

She added that attorneys appreciated reduced travel time and costs, scheduling was found more reliable, hearing start times more punctual and attendance more convenient.

Police departments and jails liked the option to hold hearings remotely, saying they reduced the costs and security concerns related to transporting defendants to court.

Victim advocate groups reported that clients felt safer and more empowered in remote hearings, and litigants said remote hearings made it easier because they didn’t have to take time off of work or find childcare.

COURTS MAKING IT EASIER TO ACCESS RECORDS ONLINE

The state judiciary is also working on making court records more easily accessible to the public.

Phase one of the Minnesota Court Records Online (MCRO) was launched March 17, making it easier to find documents. In three months, more than 3,700 users downloaded over 10,000 case documents using the system.

And, phase two, coming later this year, will add more features to the system, including searches by names as well as case or citation number.

Right now the service is free, but by next year, it will cost $8 to view documents, the same amount charged now when purchasing printed documents at the courthouse. The revenue will go into the state’s general fund.

CHAUVIN TRIAL FORCED FRESH LOOK AT CAMERAS IN COURTROOM

The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin also forced changes on the state’s judiciary in regards to allowing cameras and livestreaming in the courtroom.

“This was an unprecedented decision in our state,” Gildea said. “Historically … Minnesota has taken a cautious approach to the use of audio and video recording devices in district courts. Now, for the first time, Minnesotans were able to watch on TV and online gavel-to-gavel coverage of a criminal trial in state court.”

She said she’s seen it estimated that upwards of 23 million people watched the trial.

The trial brought fresh interest into whether the courts should modify or expand the current requirements for recording criminal trials. The state Supreme Court issued an order directing the Advisory Committee for the Rules of Criminal Procedure to review the question and file recommendations by July 1, 2022.