Access to Justice in the Time of COVID-19

Minnesota Supreme Court The Minnesota Judicial Branch
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Updated June 4. 2020.

Access to justice is one of the first promises of Minnesota’s Constitution. The Minnesota Judicial Branch exists to uphold that promise, and the judges and staff who serve in our state’s court system strive every day to provide an accessible place for Minnesotans to have their disputes resolved fairly and impartially, and their rights protected under the law.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our ability to fulfill that constitutional responsibility like never before.

Our system of justice is based around close, personal interactions. Judges sit alongside court staff who record the day’s proceedings.  Attorneys sit next to their clients to provide whispered guidance and representation. Witnesses are called to a shared stand and use a shared microphone. Twelve jurors squeeze into a small box to closely watch the proceedings and render judgment. Members of the public and media sit next to one another on communal benches to monitor this very public process.

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On a normal day, this scene plays out in more than 100 court locations across all 87 counties in Minnesota. Quite literally, thousands of Minnesotans enter a courthouse every day to seek justice, participate in cases, oversee the judiciary, or simply do their jobs.

Quite literally, thousands of Minnesotans enter a courthouse every day to seek justice, participate in cases, oversee the judiciary, or simply do their jobs.

So what, then, do we do at a time when “close, personal interactions” have become prime vectors for spreading a dangerous virus during a global pandemic? How do we administer our very human system of justice during the era of social distancing?  How do we balance our constitutional responsibility to provide access to justice with the health and safety of those who participate in court proceedings?

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the Minnesota Judicial Branch to take unprecedented steps to maintain court operations while shifting almost all of our work outside of traditional courtrooms.

On March 13, just hours after Governor Tim Walz declared a Peacetime State of Emergency in Minnesota, I convened an emergency meeting of the Minnesota Judicial Council, our statewide policy-making body. Following that meeting, I issued a statewide order that kept courthouses open, but temporarily suspended work on certain case types and discouraged the public from making any non-essential visits to court facilities.

I convened an emergency meeting of the Minnesota Judicial Council, our statewide policy-making body.

Less than a week later, as the pandemic’s impact on Minnesota came into sharper focus, the Judicial Council met again and determined stronger measures were needed. On March 20, I issued a new order that temporarily suspended most in-person court proceedings, limited public access to court facilities, and restricted courthouse service windows to only telephone and email support. And judges and court staff began working from home unless needed at the courthouse to conduct a limited amount of vital business.

That order, which I have extended as Governor Walz has extended the state’s stay-at-home directive, is still in effect at the time of this writing. Most in-person court operations are currently suspended until May 18, though the order makes clear that jury trials will not begin until at least June 1.

We also understood, however, that we could not simply suspend cases for the duration of the pandemic. We needed to develop a solution that would allow us to continue processing cases and providing access to justice even when all of us could not be at our courthouses.

We needed to develop a solution that would allow us to continue processing cases and providing access to justice even when all of us could not be at our courthouses.

In mid-March, we developed a statewide Remote Hearing Workgroup, composed of court administrators and IT experts, to explore technologies that would allow our district and appellate courts to begin conducting hearings remotely, with judges, attorneys, parties, and others participating from their homes or offices. The Judicial Branch had some experience using remote hearing technology, especially in large, rural counties. But never had we attempted such a large-scale shift to “virtual” courtrooms. The Workgroup acted quickly to ensure that each courthouse had the best possible technology and software needed to conduct virtual hearings, and that our judges and staff were trained to conduct these hearings from their homes or chambers.

At the same time, the Workgroup developed an array of training materials to help attorneys, justice partners, and other court users adapt to our new reality. The Judicial Branch launched a webpage—www.mncourts.gov/remote-hearings—to assist Minnesotans who must participate in remote hearings and to provide information to members of the public who wish to access a remote hearing.

What the staff of the Minnesota Judicial Branch accomplished in such a brief time is nothing short of astounding. By the last week of April, our district courts were holding an average of more than 800 hearings per day, the vast majority of which were happening virtually. The Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have also been holding our oral arguments virtually.

I have tremendous admiration for the work of our judges and staff across the state who have helped lead this transformation of our courts and who have adapted so quickly to this new reality.

I have tremendous admiration for the work of our judges and staff across the state who have helped lead this transformation of our courts and who have adapted so quickly to this new reality. I am also grateful to members of the Bar, and the rest of our statewide justice community, who have been our partners in this remarkable effort. Together, we have helped maintain access to justice during this time of crisis.

At the same time that our courts began shifting to remote hearings, we also started to plan for how we will eventually return to regular, in-person court operations. A group of judges and court administrators from around the state, affectionately known as The Other Side Workgroup, is leading us in thinking about how our courts will return to normal when we are on “the other side” of the current pandemic. Among other important work, The Other Side Workgroup produced Transitional Case Strategies for CivilCriminalJuvenile, and Probate case types that have guided the casework during the transitional period. These Transitional Case Strategies are available at www.mncourts.gov/Emergency.

The Workgroup has also developed the framework to pilot test new procedures for jury trials and ensure a safe workplace. The May 15, 2020, order and the most recent order, from May 28, 2020, explain how we have begun to expand in-person courthouse operations:

  • Pilot test new procedures for jury trials: The Minnesota Judicial Branch worked with the Minnesota Department of Health to develop protocols that should allow us to safely resume courthouse jury trials. We are going to pilot test these protocols in a small number of counties before restarting jury trials statewide. Before being approved to start trials, pilot locations must develop a plan to meet health and safety guidelines in advance of asking jurors to come to the courthouse. These plans detail how each court will safely get jurors into courthouses and courtrooms, how we will maintain social distancing in courtrooms and jury deliberation rooms, and how we will use precautions against exposure, such as masks and sanitizer. At the time of this publication, four counties have been approved to pilot criminal jury trials: Hennepin, McLeod, Ramsey, and Olmsted. More information on these safety protocols and pilots is available at www.mncourts.gov/jurors.aspx.
  • Provide a safe workplace: We are taking an array of steps to protect the health and safety of judges, staff, attorneys, and court users as they return to a courthouse. This includes securing ample supplies of masks and disinfectants and making physical modifications to courthouses and courtrooms to promote social distancing. Information about the steps we are taking can be found at www.mncourts.gov/reopening.
  • Work with attorneys and justice partners to ensure a smooth transition: The Minnesota Judicial Branch understands that our justice system is built on partnerships and that we must work closely with attorneys and other stakeholders as we prepare to resume more in-person court operations. We have been having regular conversations with justice partners to make sure they are aware of our plans and have a chance to voice their questions or issues. These have been productive meetings, and I am confident that our justice system will continue to work in unison as we resume more typical courthouse operations.

As I said at the outset, the current pandemic has challenged Minnesota’s justice system like never before. Our goal over the past two-and-a-half months has been to maintain access to justice and process cases to the fullest extent possible while limiting the need for judges, staff, attorneys, and parties to enter a court facility. I am so proud of what we have accomplished so far, and grateful for the partnership we have received from the justice community.

Looking ahead, our primary goal will continue to be protecting the health and safety of court officers, employees, and users. We will take a careful and strategic approach to reopen our courthouses, and no one should expect that our courts will simply resume normal operations overnight. We know we are going to face a backlog of cases and trials, and we are all eager to get back to more normal operations. But we must proceed thoughtfully and follow the direction provided to us by our state’s public health experts.

As I am writing this column, I cannot offer a firm timeline for when we will get back to “business as usual” in our courts. But I want attorneys in Minnesota to know that we are working diligently to strike the right balance between protecting health and safety and fulfilling the promise of Minnesota’s Constitution—ensuring everyone in our state has timely access to justice.

For the most recent updates about how the Minnesota Judicial Branch is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit www.mncourts.gov/emergency.

Photo credit: Minnesota Supreme Court.

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