JEFFERSON — The Jefferson County Circuit Courts are resuming in-court hearings, including jury trials, today.
“While we far exceeded statewide operations levels during the pandemic, using video conferencing and similar technologies, the Supreme Court instructed us to come up with plans to resume in-court proceedings while keeping litigants, staff, lawyers and the public as safe as we possibly can,” Judge Bennett J. Brantmeier, chairman of the courts’ operation plan committee said.
Brantmeier was put in charge of formulating a plan for the courts to return to a more normal mode of administering justice, while providing for the public’s safety and instilling confidence in the Jefferson County Court System.
According to Brantmeier, county stakeholders have been regularly meeting since May 27 to establish safe policies for resuming in-person court proceedings. These officials include Brantmeier, Clerk of Courts Cindy Hamre Incha, Administrator Ben Wehmeier, Assistant District Attorney Theresa Beck, Public Defender Amber Rumpf, Sheriff Paul Milbrath, Assistant Corporation Counsel Yelena Zarwell, Emergency Management Donna Haugom, Pubic Health Officer Gail Scott and Maintenance Supervisor Larry Meyer. Many county officials and citizens joined the committee’s Zoom discussions.
The full Operational Plan, approved June 17 by Presiding Judge William Hue and Chief Judge of the Third Judicial District Jennifer Dorow of Waukesha is posted on the Jefferson County website at www.jeffersoncountywi.gov.
“The county has been diligently working to install signs, barriers, and other safety measures, such as ionization systems, duct cleaning, and has implemented the use of SmartTouch and BioProtect products designed to protect and sanitize for 90 days, as required by the plan,” a media release from the courts said. “The courts have further developed practices to avoid exposure and infection through interpersonal contact, of jurors, litigants, attorneys, witnesses and court staff in a jury trial or other court setting.”
Because of the physical layout of the county’s four courtrooms, only the Branch 1 courtroom will be used for jury trials.
“That courtroom has been modified with plexiglass barriers to not only provide for the safety and wellbeing of those physically present in the courtroom, but also to relieve anxiety and help jurors and others feel comfortable attending court,” the courts stated. “The Branch 1 Jury Courtroom has a posted capacity of 32 persons including staff, has clearly marked six feet spaces and has counsel tables and a witness stand positioned to ensure adequate sight lines and facilitate the ability of participants to hear court proceedings.”
The jury selection process will be altered to ensure physical distancing. Spectators will be able to observe jury trials on a limited seating capacity basis in court, or through livestream or other video-accommodated means for all hearings and jury trials that are open to the public.
The courts said additional precautions will be taken during the jury selection process recognizing physical distancing and capacity issues, including possibly using the county board room if a larger physical space is required.
Each Branch of the Circuit Court has been assigned a “jury week”, with the criminal courts holding jury trials on Mondays and Tuesdays. The civil/family/juvenile courts will hold trials on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be used for longer trials, added to either end.
“The remaining three courtrooms have also had barriers installed at counsel tables, witness stands and court reporter stations,” the courts said. “Those courtrooms will be used for non-jury trial, in-person court appearances.
For consistency throughout the branches, each court will also continue to hold non-essential, in-person court hearings virtually utilizing Zoom or other technology to provide smooth court operations and protect court users when appropriate.
All persons in all courtrooms or court related confined spaces will have access to hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes/spray.”
Staff is required to wipe down their respective stations after each court appearance when rotating out of their stations. Each attorney or litigant will be directed to wipe down the counsel table and microphone before leaving the courtroom and the Jefferson County Maintenance Department will clean and disinfect each courtroom and all spaces used for jury trials and court proceedings each morning or evening.
Signs will be placed outside the courthouse for general courthouse users. Users will be asked about COVID-19 symptoms, informed that non-essential individuals should not enter the courtrooms, inform all people that face coverings must be worn and that physical distancing is required.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court and Gov. Tony Evers have ordered mandatory face coverings in court and indoors, respectively.
Individuals entering courts will be provided with a mask free of charge.
General cleaning and disinfecting of the courthouse, itself, will be ongoing. Hand sanitizer or disinfectant spray and wipes will be available throughout the courthouse.
“The Jefferson County Judges thank all of those involved with implementing the Operational Plan for re-opening the courtrooms to in-person appearance and jury trials,” Branch II Judge William Hue said. “The judges will be enforcing the procedures and encouraging everyone to respect the Supreme Court mandates. The judges urge everyone to simply be safe and respectful to staff and fellow citizens.”
“We have been challenged by circumstances beyond our control,” Brantmeier said. “I know the good citizens of Jefferson County will unite behind these efforts. It won’t be long, I hope, for us to return to a more normal time in our lives and in the court system.”