Two weeks after announcing the judicial branch had formed three task forces to determine how to gradually resume in-person court services, the Supreme Court has released its reopening plan.
Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth T. Hughes chaired the Circuit Court Task Force; Justice Debra Hembree Lambert chaired the Family Court Task Force; and Justice Michelle M. Keller chaired the District Court Task Force.
“Our priority is to implement a limited, phased reopening that will allow greater access to the courts while keeping court personnel and the public safe through social distancing and other precautions,” Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. said in an email sent to the justices, judges, circuit court clerks and court personnel who serve the judicial branch.
Under an administrative order issued Tuesday, which becomes effective June 1:
- Courts may resume hearing all civil and criminal matters.
- All hearings should be conducted remotely, unless the judge determines that an in-person hearing is necessary.
- If a matter requires an in-person hearing, several safety precautions must be observed, including limiting courtroom capacity, social distancing, facial coverings and frequent disinfecting of public spaces.
- Entrance to court facilities is limited to individuals with a scheduled in-person hearing and those filing emergency protective orders, interpersonal protective orders and emergency custody orders.
- All Kentucky Court of Justice officials and employees and all members of the public entering a court facility must wear a facial covering.
- --Members of the public are prohibited from bringing purses or similarly enclosed bags into court facilities, unless items in the bags are medically necessary.
- Telework will be encouraged for any employee who is able to do so.
- Staffing will be limited to 50 percent, unless an exception is granted by the Department of Human Resources.
“As you know, the majority of court matters are not voluntary,” Minton said. “People can choose whether to eat at a restaurant or go shopping, but in most instances they don’t get to choose whether they go to court. We’re incorporating as many of the governor’s requirements as possible into our orders to maintain a high standard of safety for our employees, elected officials and the public.”
Justice Keller said since district courts have the most foot traffic, her task force, which continues to meet, has a bigger logistical challenge than the other two. She has district court judges, elected circuit court clerks and representatives from both the public defenders and county attorneys’ offices on her panel.
“Certainly, there’s the requirements of social distancing, in addition to the number of people we can have in the courthouse and the courtroom,” she stated. “It’s going to present a real challenge to do things like grand jury proceedings and jury trials. You can’t seat jurors in a jury box in the traditional manner. It’s not appropriate; you wouldn’t be social distancing.”
Telework is an important part of the equation, Keller said. “We are strongly guiding our judges and everybody in our system to continue to do the work that they are able to do adequately in a remote fashion, whether it be by Zoom, by Skype, whatever.”
However, she says there are some things that can’t be accomplished that way. “Grand jury proceedings are one of those, as are jury trials, obviously. Even some of the more complicated civil and criminal hearings.”
Justice Keller predicts a “mini-tsunami” when the court system reopens. “We suspended the operation of some criminal rules mandating certain hearings be conducted within a certain time. We waived that period of time, but now the time is up. And we have to have those hearings.”
Gov. Andy Beshear suspended all evictions as part of his "Healthy at Home" initiatives due to the pandemic, but at some point, district courts are going to address that issue as well, Keller said. “I actually took my district court task force and divided it into a smaller working group called the eviction task force, so we could figure out just how to deal with the eviction aspect of district court traffic.”
Keller says the court system won’t be able to process things as quickly or as efficiently as in pre-COVID-19 days, due to logistical challenges. “But I have to say the judges and clerks are rising to the challenges. They really are.”