When Judge David M. Byrn took the reins as presiding judge of the Jackson County Circuit Court in January 2019, little did he know what all would await him in his two-year term managing the court’s affairs.
About a month later, a water line ruptured, flooding the basement of the courthouse in downtown Kansas City and knocking out access to half of the building’s elevators. Days later, the building suffered a second water-line break on the sixth floor, which damaged courtrooms and offices on three floors.
The courthouse remained closed for more than two weeks. The court shifted judges and court staff to its courthouse in Independence and other locations until the downtown building could reopen.
Through the rest of his tenure, which ended in December, Byrn worked closely with Jackson County officials to oversee construction efforts — a process that at times he found frustratingly slow and required frequent rearranging of judges and court staff to alternative locations.
Courtroom and office renovations will be nearly completed this month, while all of the elevators are on schedule to be functioning by mid-March, Byrn said.
Flooding wasn’t the only crisis on his watch. Beginning in early 2020, the court responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Judicial officers and court employees worked remotely at first, then returned to courthouses to slowly bring court operations back online.
“Clearly it’s been a struggle at times, and not every case has been heard as timely as initially scheduled, but I’m really proud of the fact that we stayed open to hear cases,” Byrn said, crediting court employees’ resilience and strength under pressure.
“Probably the most challenging part of dealing with COVID was every day the reality, the circumstances, what we knew, what we didn’t know changed,” as did various regulations and Supreme Court directives in response, he said.
“Normally when you’re dealing with a crisis mode like the flood, you have a defined set of facts and you’re responding and moving forward.”
With the pandemic came intensifying protests of how the court handled evictions. KC Tenants, a tenant-advocacy group, criticized the court’s decision to continue to hold eviction dockets, and its members and supporters regularly interrupted court proceedings.
In September, the group sued the court, challenging an administrative order the court issued in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national eviction moratorium. In November, a federal judge denied the group’s request for a preliminary injunction.
Byrn said the decision to allow evictions in some circumstances stemmed from his desire to uphold the court’s role of enforcing the law.
“To me, the issue has always been, there are laws on the books of Missouri that allow for landlord-tenant actions and for individuals to be evicted,” he said.
“As a court, we can’t pick and choose and say, ‘Well, this is a pandemic, so we’re going to ignore those laws,’ because then the next question becomes, ‘What are the next ones we’re going to ignore?’”
Byrn said he enjoyed his time as presiding judge despite the various difficulties he encountered.
“It was an honor to serve as PJ for this court and represent all the people of the court, and it’s been a challenge but very rewarding,” he said.