Courts in Wisconsin’s largest counties moved last weekend or sooner to cancel, postpone or limit in-person events, but some counties changed little at all and others adopted a patchwork of differing approaches.
Criminal defense lawyers say that has put them and some clients at unnecessary risk for exposure to or spreading of the COVID-19 virus and have asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the Office of Director of State Courts to impose consistent, statewide procedures for all circuit courts, as many other states’ Supreme Courts have done.
“The absence of a coherent common statewide set of procedures is dangerous,” reads a letter from the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“The lack of such furthers the potential spread of the coronavirus, potentially and needlessly exposing judges, clerks, bailiffs, prosecutors, court reporters, defense attorneys, defendants, jurors and witnesses,” reads the letter, addressed to Chief Justice Patience Roggensack and Director of State Courts Randy Koshnick.
WACDL says most of its members work in multiple counties, often in the same day.
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It’s not only defense lawyers who have concerns concern. Portage County District Attorney Louis Molepske, president of the state’s DA association, told Wisconsin Public Radio that the “lack of a clear directive from the director of state courts” has been a big challenge for prosecutors.
The state courts system on March 11 announced it was monitoring the situation.
“As this situation evolves, some counties or circuit courts may decide whether it is necessary to limit or monitor access to public buildings, order quarantines or modify court calendars or procedures to help reduce the potential spread of the virus.”
On Friday, in response to the WACDL letter, the Supreme Court said “it will be meeting during the current public health emergency to consider various issues arising out of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the operation of the courts in this state.
“Any modifications by the Supreme Court of existing court procedures will be communicated by written order that will be posted on the court’s website.”
Dane, Waukesha and Milwaukee counties had announced changes by last weekend. This week, some other counties added variations, links to which are listed under a COVID-19 tab on the state courts’ website.
Even in those counties, some individual judges still required lawyers to come to court in person for matters as simple as scheduling a future hearing. The WACDL letter said one judge, which it did not name, responded to a lawyer’s concerns that COVID-19 “is no worse than the flu” and insisted lawyers come to court in person.
In Michigan, Chief Justice Bridget M. McCormack said, “The Supreme Court speaks with one, decisive voice: Courts must respond so that the policy is uniform all across Michigan.”
In Alabama, the supreme court suspended all but a specific few in-person proceedings at all courts in the state beginning March 16.
Minnesota’s chief justice also imposed statewide court rules, though not as stringent, effective March 16. In Iowa, the Supreme Court issued statewide, tightened restrictions on court activity on Tuesday.
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