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UPDATE: Missouri Supreme Court suspends most in-person proceedings at state courts

Staff Report//March 13, 2020//

UPDATE: Missouri Supreme Court suspends most in-person proceedings at state courts

Staff Report//March 13, 2020//

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UPDATE: This story has been updated on Thursday to include news from several jurisdictions, including appellate courts postponing oral arguments.

The Missouri Supreme Court has ordered the suspension of all in-person proceedings in all appellate and circuit courts, with exceptions for critical matters.

The suspension, ordered to last to at least April 3, covers all associate, family, juvenile, municipal and probate divisions.

RELATED: Legal community copes as most in-person proceedings canceled

The order makes a number of exceptions, however, allowing in-person hearings in such cases as those necessary to protect the constitutional rights of criminal defendants and juveniles, as well as emergency matters, temporary restraining orders and proceedings directly related to the COVID-19 public health emergency itself.

The Supreme Court also said oral arguments it had scheduled for April will not be held at the Supreme Court Building. The court said attorneys with cases docketed on April 14 and April 22 can have it be submitted on briefs, ask to argue it on another date or explore the possibility of conducting arguments remotely.

Among the cases affected is that of Lamar Johnson, who has spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he claims he didn’t commit. The Supreme Court was set to hear arguments on April 14 on whether the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office can seek a new trial for Johnson.

And on April 22 the court was to consider a $113.7 million jury verdict for Missouri corrections officers who said they were denied compensation for pre- and post-shift duties.

In the order, Chief Justice George W. Draper III said that “despite the suspension of in-person court proceedings, Missouri courts still must continue to carry out the core, constitutional functions of the Missouri judiciary as prescribed by law and continue to uphold the constitutional rights of litigants seeking redress in any Missouri court.” He said that any courthouses that close should remain accessible by telephone and e-mail to the extent possible during regular business hours.

Following the Supreme Court’s order, the Court of Appeals Eastern District canceled all oral arguments through April 16. All cases will be submitted on the briefs, or the parties can ask to have oral arguments at a future date. In addition, the portrait ceremony for recently retired judges Lisa Van Amburg and Lawrence Mooney previously scheduled for April 14 will be postponed until a later date.

The Southern District has canceled its oral argument dockets scheduled for April 6 and 7 in Poplar Bluff. The Western District has called off arguments through April 3. Oral arguments will be rescheduled for June at the earliest, unless the case is submitted on briefs.

In addition, the Supreme Court has canceled the attorney enrollment ceremony that had been scheduled for April 24.  The ceremony, which admits attorney candidates who took the February bar exam, will not be rescheduled.  The Missouri Board of Law Examiners still expects to release the results of the February exam on April 15.

  *   *   *   *   *

Several courts and public legal organizations across Missouri have taken steps, including suspending jury trials and high-volume dockets, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri has issued a general order continuing all civil and criminal (grand and petit) jury selections and jury trials through March 29.

All non-emergency criminal and civil hearings are continued through March 29, however, individual judges may continue to hold such hearings, conferences and bench trials.

All trial deadlines in criminal cases through March 29 are also continued. Individual judges may use discretion to continue trial-specific deadlines in civil cases.

All bankruptcy hearings and trials scheduled through March 29 will be conducted by telephone or continued based on the circumstances and at the discretion of the judge.

All courthouses and offices in the Western District of Missouri will remain open for business.

The Western District’s Mediation and Assessment Program has set requirements for mediations held on or before April 14.

Individuals required to travel from out of town to attend mediations, as well as individuals who have compromised health, may instead appear by interactive means, such as telephone, videoconference, FaceTime or Skype, “so long as they are fully participating in the mediation for the entire duration. Being available to receive an occasional call does not satisfy the remote appearance modification.”

Please direct any questions to the MAP office at 816-512-5080.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri

The court announced in a news release that it is restricting certain people from entering district courthouses, effective March 13.

Under the order of Chief Judge Rodney W. Sippel, the following people will not be allowed to enter the district’s courthouses:

  • Those who have traveled to any foreign country within the last 14 days
  • Those who reside or have had close contact with someone who has traveled to a foreign country within the last 14 days
  • Those who have been asked to self-quarantine by a doctor, hospital or health agency
  • Those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have had contact with a person diagnosed with it
  • Those with unexplained fever, cough or shortness of breath

According to the release, anyone attempting to enter the courthouse in violation of these protocols will be denied entry by court security officers.

Attorneys scheduled to appear at an EDMO courthouse but who fall into those categories are encouraged to contact judges’ chambers directly.

Federal Bureau of Prisons

The Federal Bureau of Prisons announced today that it is suspending social visits and legal visits to inmates for 30 days.

According to a news release, lawyers can receive case-by-case accommodation to visit with their clients in that time period, however. Inmates will also be allowed confidential calls to ensure they maintain access to counsel.

Attorneys seeking an in-person visit with their client or a confidential call should contact the institution’s Executive Assistant or contact the appropriate Consolidated Legal Center for the BOP institution.

If approved for an in-person visit, the attorney will need to under the same screening procedures as staff, the release said.

The Missouri Bar

In its weekly email March 13, The Missouri Bar said it is temporarily suspending its in-person events. The organization will provide updates to those who have already registered for events or are otherwise affected as more details become available.

5th Judicial Circuit

In the 5th Circuit, which comprises Andrew and Buchanan counties, the court will reschedule all jury trials scheduled for the weeks of March 16 through April 27. Individual hearings will be held, but judges are encouraged to use tele- or videoconferencing. Anyone showing signs of illness or having been diagnosed with coronavirus are barred from entering courthouses.

11th Judicial Circuit

In the 11th Circuit, which covers St. Charles County, the court has suspended all in-person proceedings, and will reschedule all jury trials between March 16 and April 3. Anyone showing signs of illness or having been diagnosed with coronavirus are barred from entering courthouses.

12th Judicial Circuit

In the 12th Circuit, which comprises Audrain, Montgomery and Warren counties, the court canceled most in-person hearings and will reschedule all jury trials scheduled for the weeks of March 16 through April 3. Judges are encouraged to use tele- or videoconferencing where possible. Anyone showing signs of illness or having been diagnosed with coronavirus are barred from entering courthouses.

20th Judicial Circuit

The 20th Circuit, covering Franklin, Gasconade and Osage counties, has barred anyone showing signs of or having been diagnosed with coronavirus or who have traveled overseas recently from entering courthouses.

25th Judicial Circuit

The 25th Circuit, comprising Phelps, Pulaski, Texas and Maries counties, will remain open. Courtrooms will be cleaned and disinfected at the conclusion of court sessions, judges are encouraged to reduce congestion in courtrooms and during jury selection, and tele- and videoconferencing will be used when appropriate. Tissues will be available in lobbies and courtrooms.

27th Judicial Circuit

In the 27th Circuit, which covers Henry, St. Clair and Bates counties, the court said its facilities will remain open. The court will schedule events and use of additional courthouse spaces to prevent or lessen overcrowding in the courtrooms, will use tele- and videoconferencing when available and will thoroughly clean all surfaces and courtrooms.

28th Judicial Circuit

In the 28th Circuit, covering Barton, Cedar, Dade and Vernon counties, people who are ill or who may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus are restricted from entering courthouses. Previously, after the Vernon County Commission closed the county courthouse on March 16, Presiding Judge David R. Munton ordered the closure of the circuit clerk’s office and the juvenile office that day, citing the lack of law enforcement support.

29th Judicial Circuit

The Jasper County Circuit Court will reschedule all jury trials for the weeks of March 16 and March 23. Hearings on full orders of protection scheduled for those weeks will be continued for two weeks from the date of the original hearing. Large volume, high volume and multi-case dockets are postponed, and individual hearings are encouraged to be held via tele- or videoconference.

31st Judicial Circuit

The Green County Circuit Court said it plans to stay open. Courtrooms will be cleaned and disinfected at the conclusion of court sessions, judges will take steps to reduce crowding in courtrooms and during jury selection, and tele- and videoconferencing will be used when appropriate.

34th Judicial Circuit

In the 34th Circuit, which covers New Madrid and Pemiscot counties, the juvenile offices are asking juveniles who are on formal and informal probation to check in by phone rather than attend face-to-face meetings.

Referral sources are asked not to send juveniles or their parents to the office without prior authorization from a juvenile officer. Officials say they will screen referrals based upon the urgency of the situation and might hold off on processing non-emergency referrals. Staff in both offices will continue to report as usual.

38th Judicial Circuit

The Christian County Circuit Court remains open but has asked attorneys to schedule or continue all matters that don’t require immediate attention to dates after May 1. The court said it will give priority to criminal cases.

44th Judicial Circuit

The 44th Circuit, comprising Wright, Douglas and Ozark counties, says its courtrooms will be disinfected after every court docket and handwashing stations will be set up outside courtrooms. The court is prioritizing criminal cases involving serious felonies and juvenile cases involving allegations of abuse or neglect. The public is asked not to attend trials or hearings unless necessary.

45th Judicial Circuit

The 45th Judicial Circuit, covering Lincoln and Pike counties, has canceled all jury trials and grand jury proceedings scheduled through April 17. Large volume, high volume and multi-case dockets are postponed, though some could be held via tele- or videoconference. Hearings on full orders of protection scheduled for the week of March 27 will be continued for two weeks from the date of the original hearing.

St. Louis Circuit Court

In St. Louis Circuit Court, jury trials will be suspended until April 13. Presiding Circuit Judge Rex M. Burlison issued the order during an emergency meeting of the court en banc March 13 in the St. Louis Civil Courts Building.

“The circuit’s intention is to make the courts available to the public during this health crisis but to reduce the public’s exposure as much as possible until we have further direction from public health authorities,” Burlison stated in a news release.

Walk-in wedding ceremonies are also postponed until further notice. Weddings had been scheduled for 2 p.m. March 20, April 3 and 17 at the Civil Courts Building.

The week of April 6 is a nonjury week so the decision will only affect trials scheduled for the next three weeks, Jury Supervisor Joanne Martin said. Those who received a jury summons for March 16 through April 3 should not report for duty and will be returned to the general jury pool.

Essential court functions such as insuring orders of protection and bond reviews for newly detained individuals will continue, said Thom Gross, public information officer for the 22nd Judicial Circuit of Missouri.

Judges were asked to report to Burlison how they intend to prevent contamination, including limiting the amount of people allowed in the courtroom.

The public health situation remains fluid, and the court could make further adjustments as considered appropriate, Burlison noted in the release.

St. Louis County Circuit Court

Presiding Judge Michael D. Burton issued an administrative order March 13 in which he scaled back court operations but said the courthouse would remain open.

Under his order, no jurors will be summoned for the weeks of March 16 and March 23, and municipal court proceedings will be suspended. Weddings, courthouse tours, meetings with outside groups, after-hours classes and community events will be postponed, and the public resource center and law library will be closed.

Criminal cases in which defendants are not in custody will be postponed and rescheduled. Hearings involving criminal defendants and probation revocation matters in which the defendant is in custody will be conducted by videoconference. Hearings on other criminal, civil, domestic, juvenile and probate cases will be postponed and rescheduled unless a specific judge assigned to that case notifies the parties that the hearing will proceed as scheduled.

Also to be postponed and rescheduled are large volume, high volume and/or multi-case dockets, including but not limited to Associate Circuit Court high volume civil dockets, Circuit Court civil case management dockets, Associate and Circuit Court domestic “call” dockets, landlord/tenant dockets/cases, small claims dockets/cases, uncontested dissolution dockets/cases, traffic and municipal dockets/cases, and treatment court dockets, including the SAFETI Family Drug Court, Burton said.

Full order of protection hearings scheduled for the weeks of March 16 and March 23 will be continued and rescheduled. All ex parte orders of protection currently in effect are extended until the new hearing date.

Juvenile detention hearings and protective custody hearings will proceed as scheduled, as will hearings for juveniles in custody at the county Juvenile Detention Center. All other hearings in abuse and neglect cases may be continued for good cause. All other delinquency cases and termination-of-parental-rights cases scheduled during the weeks of March 16 and March 23 will be continued and rescheduled.

The Family Exchange Center and parent visits supervised by the Family Court will remain in operation, but hours may be reduced subject to staffing limitations. The Adult Abuse Office will continue its normal operations.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell said his office is limiting the flow of people and activity in the Justice Center and courts in an effort to reduce exposure to not only the public, but also jail and court staff as well as inmates in the justice center.

In a statement, Bell said his staff is prioritizing serious and violent cases, and cases involving confined defendants. People who are arrested for nonviolent offenses and do not pose a threat to a victim or the community will be given summonses to appear in court later.

Also, people housed in the justice center who are charged with nonviolent or low-level crimes and do not pose a threat to any victims or the community will be given consideration for release until their court dates, Bell said. Anyone who commits a violent or serious crime, however, will be arrested and prosecuted, he said.

“Obviously, lowering the jail population in a safe and responsible manner will facilitate dealing with the virus and working to stop its spread,” he said.

Jackson County Circuit Court

The Jackson County Circuit Court issued an administrative order March 13 that suspends all jury trials and high-volume dockets scheduled for the weeks of March 16 and March 23.

According to the order, individual hearings on specific criminal, civil, domestic and probate cases will proceed as scheduled unless the specific judge assigned to the case takes action under the administrative order. The court has strongly encouraged judicial officers to consider alternative means for conducting hearings.

Under the order, in all criminal cases where the defendant is in custody at the Jackson County Detention Center, defendants will not be transported to court for hearings. Instead, all hearings will be conducted by videoconferencing, including initial appearances and arraignments.

At the Juvenile Justice Center, all detention hearings and protective custody hearings will proceed as scheduled, while other family court cases set for the weeks of March 16 and March 23 will be rescheduled.

Johnson County, Kansas

In Johnson County, Kansas, which has had four confirmed cases of COVID-19, the 10th Judicial District Court has also canceled jury trials scheduled through May 1.

Chief Judge Thomas Kelly issued an administrative order March 13 stating that while the courthouse and its offices will remain open, the court system cannot function without juries. All scheduled jury trials are continued pending further order of the court.

The court will continue to hear other matters at the courthouse as determined by individual judges.

The order comes a day after Kansas Governor Laura Kelly declared a state of emergency to address COVID-19.

Kansas City Municipal Court

In Kansas City, the judges of the Municipal Court voted at an emergency court meeting on March 12 to modify court operations following Mayor Quinton Lucas’ declaration of a state of emergency.

The court has cancelled court hearings scheduled from March 16 to April 10 for defendants not in custody, with the exception of hearings scheduled for domestic violence court, drug court, mental health court and veterans treatment court cases.

The court also canceled all walk-in dockets from March 16 through April 10. The court itself will be remain open for business. Court employees, including prosecutors, are still working at the courthouse.

Jefferson County

The 23rd Circuit has postponed all trials and hearings on full orders of protection for the week of March 16 and March 23. The court also suspended confinement orders of less than five days and said civil body attachments will be withdrawn, though criminal warrants remain active. Each division will decide whether to cancel dockets, allow video appearances or grant continuances.

Liberty Municipal Court

Liberty is closing many city functions, including its municipal court. March 19 and 20 court cases will be moved to August 13 and 14.

St. Louis area

Several legal organizations in the St. Louis region banded together March 13 to recommend policy changes to Missouri officials that they say will help populations who are at the highest risk for contracting COVID-19.

ArchCity Defenders sent a letter to local and state officials, including court officials and prosecutors, in which it outlined the challenges of those high-risk groups, including the unhoused, the working poor, immigrants and people with disabilities. The policy recommendations also extend to areas within local governments and the criminal justice system, including police and immigration enforcement, courts, and jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities.

Some examples of the recommendations include:

  • Abstaining from arresting people for ordinance violations, misdemeanors and non-violent felonies
  • Suspending immediately the in-person operations of all circuit, associate and municipal court divisions except those that are required to address orders of protection, confined individuals and other exigent circumstances, with periodic reassessment as to whether normal operations may resume
  • Releasing all individuals from jail who have not been preventatively detained for posing a danger to the community or a flight risk, including those held on cash bail and awaiting probation violation hearings or parole revocation hearings

Co-signers of the letter include the ACLU of Missouri, the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the St. Louis University Civil Litigation Clinic and the Missouri State Public Defender System.

ArchCity Defenders

The St. Louis-based, civil rights law firm remains at work in its offices, but it has limited staff there and expanded work-at-home hours, electronic communication and virtual meetings for others, Executive Director Blake A. Strode said.

ArchCity has heightened its cleaning, handwashing and disinfecting protocols and is holding no group meetings of 10 or more people within a limited space, Strode said. The office also has adopted no-contact/handshake-free practices, he said.

“As a friend reminded me on Friday, we are in the business of serving people,” he said. “As a result, our work must continue and may prove even more critical in this moment . . . the communities we serve are likely to be those hardest hit by this crisis, and we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to help mitigate that harm.”

29th Judicial District (Wyandotte County, Kansas)

Judges for Kansas’ 29th Judicial Circuit in Wyandotte County decided to also postpone all jury trials through April 19, according to court administrator Anita Peterson. Peterson said the courthouse will remain open otherwise, and judges will still hear their other dockets.

For updates on courts that weren’t mentioned here, check Missouri’s courts website.

Coronavirus crisis

This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

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