JANESVILLE—Rock County Chief Judge Daniel Dillon says in-person court hearings could resume at the Rock County Courthouse by August. But, he also said uncertainty is the only certainty that should be expected in a courtroom.
The Rock County Board of Judges, along with multiple community partners and agencies, have drafted a robust reopening plan for Rock County courts. The four-phase plan lays out guidelines needed for reopening court operations that are currently all being done remotely.
“We anticipate that we will be moving forward, but the reality in this country is that a lot of states have had to back up,” Dillon said, referencing severe COVID-19 outbreaks in other states. “We have to be flexible. We have to be ready.”
The most immediate changes being made include the installation of physical distancing markers; enhanced barriers and various equipment to keep the public, staff, and judges safe, such as thermal temperature sensors at the main entrance and dividers in each court room. An air ionization system will be installed over the next five weeks to ensure clean airflow throughout the courthouse.
Another critical factor to the plan moving forward is ensuring there is enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for court staff and the public.
“Once we are close to having enough PPE, that’s when we will examine what comes next,” Judge John Wood said. “The safety of the public and staff is our top priority.”
Even when in-person hearings resume, that doesn’t mean operations will return to normal. Health screening, physical distancing and masking will be required for in-person appearances.
“It won’t be like the doors are wide open for people coming in,” Dillon said.
The judges are also working on a plan that would allow for jury trials to happen, with Wood estimating that September would be the absolute earliest trials could take place.
“The plan is coming along and there’s a draft being put together as we speak,” Wood said. “This gives us the ability to react to things.”
Staff in the courthouse will remain on a staggered shift schedule and practice social distancing. A similar plan was adopted by the o Rock County District Attorney’s Office to prevent potential closures due to sick employees.
As the court reopens, challenges to accommodate hearings could surface if a defendant, victim, witness, judge or attorney gets sick, Dillon said.
“There’s a big difference with Marsy’s Law,” Dillon said. “The law now allows a victim to be present at any stage of the court process.
If a judge gets sick, a reserve judge could be called upon to manage the case load. The most complicated scenario that could snarl a case would be a judge falling ill during a jury trial, Wood said.
The Rock County Courts currently are in phase one of the plan, which doesn’t allow any in-person hearings unless approved by Dillon.
Phase two would see most hearings conducted remotely. Plea and sentencing hearings, juvenile case proceedings, injunction hearings, certain family court matters and mental commitment hearings would be allowed in-person.
Phase three would allow all hearings in-person, but the use of remote or hybrid hearings “is still encouraged.” Any party may request to appear by video or telephone conference, with judges instructed to grant those request “whenever possible.”
Phase four is the most open, with the plan only allowing remote hearings or remote participation following statutory review. In custody defendants would appear remotely for initial appearances, preliminary hearings, status conferences, extradition hearings and calendar calls.
All phases would rely on the judges reviewing the county’s reopening plan that’s currently in phase two, ensuring the county did not regress in its benchmarks required for reopening.
Moving into the next phase would come down to the final decision of the judges in consultation with members of the Rock County administration.
“I don’t see any change coming soon,” Dillon said. “We are 100% in accord with the county administration and their approach.”