The Fayette County Common Pleas Court has remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic while taking necessary precautions to keep everyone inside the court and its offices safe.
“We have instituted the same precautions and guidelines that pretty much everyone has done, except for we needed to stay open. There has not been any closure of the court or the clerk’s office since this began,” said Common Pleas Court Judge Steven Beathard. “We are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day accepting filings. We’ve had pretrial hearings for criminal cases. Some of those, at the request of counsel, we either continued them or converted them to phone conferences. Those are mostly procedural pretrials — the trial dates are set. The only issue we’ve had is the ability to hold jury trials and that’s the same across the country. We’re no different.”
Although jury trials are still in a holding pattern, Judge Beathard and court administrator, Carmen Baird, have taken steps to prepare for their return. Jury service has been determined by the State of Ohio to be an “essential activity” and exempt from the “stay at home order.”
“We have summonses that have been sent out to prospective jurors for trials starting May 19th,” said Judge Beathard. “Whether or not we can actually hold those trials, we’ll have to wait and see. There is pending litigation in the Ohio Supreme Court that we’re waiting to get some guidance on soon. So we may have jury trials in May or we may not. The time periods in the Revised Code have all been extended in the legislature and in the Supreme Court, but that doesn’t suspend the Constitutional right to a speedy trial, and we have people at the jail that have the right to speedy trial that we need to address. The speedy trial time for those incarcerated is much shorter — 90 days versus 270 days for felonies.”
At the end of April, the court had 126 pending criminal cases — a number that is actually down from a year ago. Trial dates have been set for all of those cases, as they are for every case, and some trials scheduled for this past March were also continued.
The court has also found ways to hold a grand jury hearing during the pandemic.
“Grand jury is a panel of nine, so we called each of them and asked them how they felt about coming for grand jury,” said Baird. “All nine of them said they had no problem. We have masks and gloves for them to wear and we asked them to keep their social distance. It was just set up a little different and they were spread out six feet apart. Not one of them said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable coming.’ So we wiped down everything when we came in, wiped down everything when we left, and it worked out well.
“During a regular hearing, the defendant is sitting at the end of the table about six feet away from their attorney,” Baird continued. “We’re not allowing parties of people in the courtroom, such as families and friends. Obviously, if the victim is here and wants to speak, they’re allowed in. We have stopped everybody at the door and directed them appropriately. It has not been an issue whatsoever.”
Until two weeks ago, trips were regularly being made to the Correctional Reception Center (CRC) in Orient to drop off prisoners, however CRC has since closed.
“We have a couple of people sitting in our jail who have been sentenced to prison, but CRC isn’t accepting them right now,” said Baird. “So we’re still doing our part, doing the entries, and they’re ready to go as soon as CRC opens its doors. Just last week, we sent a couple people to the MonDay Community Correctional Institution (a correctional rehab in-house lockdown treatment center).”
Judge Beathard said the Supreme Court released a list of suggested safety protocols that have been followed by the court.
“Most of it included guidelines we had already decided to do. When we start trials, obviously it’s an open courtroom, so it’s subject to the rules we put in place for the gallery. Our potential jurors have received a lengthy letter from us regarding the protocols, and it lets them know that they’re able to cancel or defer their service. They understand that they have a legal obligation to appear because they’ve been summonsed, but they can contact us before the trial and excuse themselves if they have concerns due to COVID-19.”
The letter states: “The Court is committed to your safety and the safety of the Court staff. The following safety precautions have been implemented:
– Social distancing: The Court staff will see that all social distancing is maintained in and out of the courtroom.
– Masks: The use of masks is encouraged but not mandatory.
– Temperature Monitoring: No temperature monitoring will be conducted, but each juror must self-determine prior to arrival.”
Approximately 60 of these letters have been sent out, and not many prospective jurors have called in to say they won’t be coming due to health concerns.
“With jury trials, we’ve spent a lot of time and thought in how to protect our people, project our jurors, protect the defendants, the attorneys and all the parties,” said Baird. “It will be a logistical challenge but one that we’ve certainly thought through and think we’re ready to implement.”
Defendants charged with violent offenses and/or sex offenses are mostly the individuals currently in jail awaiting trial.
“There are a lot of moving parts to have a jury trial and on top of that, you never know what the defendant may do, especially during a situation like this,” said Judge Beathard. “Those are considerations at every trial. You may all of the sudden lose jurors — one or more of them may all of a sudden not feel safe and they leave. Everyone is trying to protect the Constitutional rights and keep things moving.”
Judge Beathard added that the Fayette County Prosecutor’s Office and the defense attorneys, particularly the public defenders on contract with the county, have done an outstanding job in keeping these cases moving.
“They have all appeared in person every time,” Judge Beathard said. “I doubt there are many courts that can say that.”
Other precautions include closing and locking doors to the offices and the placement of warnings and restrictions on the doors.
“Probation supervises 300 people, but those individuals are not coming into the office,” said Judge Beathard. “The pre-sentence investigations are done by phone, check-ins are by phone. The doors are locked. The Common Pleas Court offices aren’t open to the public, you can’t just walk in. If a member of the public knocks on the door, someone will come to help them. The clerk’s office has to have access to the public.”
Along with Judge Beathard, Baird and a bailiff, there are an additional seven employees working at the court. Social distancing began among employees about seven weeks ago.
“When this first started, I asked everyone to evaluate themselves every day,” said Baird. “If you have a temperature, we are telling them to stay at home. Thankfully, we’ve been healthy.”
Recently, the Fayette County Commissioners declared the county to be in a state of fiscal emergency. County offices were asked to assist with cutting the county’s general fund budget by 20 percent in order to stay ahead of revenue falling during the current pandemic.
These cuts included a request to reduce employee work hours and for elected officials to return 20 percent of their pay either to the county or as a donation to Fayette County Memorial Hospital.
Until April 27, every court employee worked every day. Now, there are six individuals on hourly rate who have been furloughed five to seven hours a week. Two individuals on salary are taking pay cuts.
“We were one of the first offices to get going on this and comply with the commissioners’ office because we know as soon as we have jury trials, we’re going to be busy and we’re going to need our people. During this period when we aren’t quite as busy, we thought this would be a good time to implement the furloughs,” said Baird. “The court budget is a little different because half of our budget comes from state grants, so a lot of our salaries are not on the county general fund. But a portion of them comes from the general fund. But we’re always very fiscally responsible and we feel like we’ve done our part to help reduce the budget.”
Judge Beathard added, “We give money back from our general fund every year, but from a staff standpoint, we’re bare-bones. We have three people supervising 300 probationers. We can actually meet what the commissioners have asked us to do without cutting anybody’s hours because of the amount of money we give back. Also, these furlough decisions were made in consultation with the employees. They were involved in the discussions.”
During these times when remote communication has become the norm, the Ohio Supreme Court recently made video and remote technology available through grants. The Fayette County Common Pleas Court was able to obtain a grant in short order.
“When the Supreme Court opened that up two or three weeks ago, I jumped right on that and we ended up getting $21,000 dollars,” said Baird. “The Supreme Court made it very clear cut and easy to apply for. Hopefully in the next 30 days, we’ll have some video technology and remote technology available to us. That was a great thing to get from the Supreme Court.”
Reach Ryan Carter at 740-313-0352.