Court backlog forces county’s hand on courthouse reopening

Friday, July 3, 2020

Buena Vista County officials are targeting a reopening date of July 27 for the courthouse in Storm Lake, facing pressure for the court system to resume more normal operations.

“If we open up, we’re open to everybody - and we know places in the country are seeing resurgence [in COVID-19 cases]. We get further and further behind, at some point we have to just open up and do the best we can,” board of supervisors chairperson Rhonda Ringgenberg said.

The courthouse has remained locked throughout the coronavirus outbreak, doing business by mail, phone, drop-off box or admitting by appointment. Supervisors feel that system has been working well, and board member Paul Merten said he isn’t hearing anyone “up in arms” over the limitations.

Supervisors noted that Buena Vista County has had much higher numbers of COVID-19 cases than most of the other counties in the region - some people are going out of the county to buy their groceries because of the risk, one noted.

County Attorney Paul Allen said he has been fielding questions from judges and court personnel about when the county will be ready to resume court proceedings. To do that, the courthouse will need to be open to the public.

Supervisors searched for alternatives.

One suggestion was holding hearings online by Zoom. Allen said that is already happening, but some cases are problematic - one has been delayed three times because police body camera evidence needs to be played in court. Interpreting can be difficult online, and a defendant has to consent for any sentencing to take place virtually.

Supervisors also asked if only the courthouse top floor could be opened to allow for court, while the rest remains off limits to public access. Concerns were raised about access to exits under fire code if hallways were blocked.

Holding court by appointment access only, another suggestion, could create constitutional issues for the county. “People generally have the right to go and watch court. We could have objections if we say only the suspect is allowed to come into the courtroom,” Allen said.

The county clerk of court’s office is down to two clerks working in the office, so it is likely that the attorney’s staff will need to work the courthouse assisting with traffic flow on court days, Allen said. “It is the only solution I can come up with currently. We will not have much access to court security, so my staff will need to help out there also.”

With a caseload already larger than most counties, months of pushing proceedings back will leave the county facing a heavy load, which will become heavier as trials resume, currently planned for September.

Supervisors asked what other counties are doing. Many are opening on July 13 for regular court proceedings, pending the approval of the state court administrator. Some, like Clay County (Spencer) already have courthouses fully open. “Obviously BV has remained closed longer due to upsurge in cases, justifiably so,” Allen said of COVID-19.

Some of the supervisors felt that reopening the courthouse on July 13 would be premature. They hoped to gather some input from the county department heads in a meeting that was planned for Thursday.

But Allen felt the county needs to be able to give the court system an idea of when to expect to be able to access the courtrooms. “We originally started scheduling things in June after the first wave of coronavirus, then we rescheduled them for July, and now we are rescheduling them again for longer… a timeframe would be helpful,” Allen said.

“We don’t have a good answer,” Chairperson Ringgenberg admitted.

“To just say open, I don’t know if we want to do that. Once that door opens for 20 seconds, a lot of people can come through that door,” Supervisor Merten added. He felt the odds for spreading the illness would go up. “You can’t really keep people who are positive out. If you get a summons to be in court, what are you going to do?”

Allen said that his office is already having to deal with people scheduled for court claiming to be positive for COVID-19 - “some falsely so, some accurately so.”

In a few cases, people are already abusing the situation, claiming illness to try to get out of court or sentencing, he said. The Iowa Supreme Court has directed that people with COVID-19 symptoms cannot attend court proceedings. Their attorneys are to be responsible for enforcing the situation as best they can.

The county attorney suggested that if the supervisors aren’t ready to reopen the courthouse by the 13th, they could set a target for the 27th - four weeks’ time. “That would give me something to report,” he said.

If the county doesn’t act to reopen the courthouse, a judge could force its hand and order proceedings to be held there, based on how the law is written, Attorney Allen said.

“There was a bill in the legislature that would have given counties pretty much exclusive control of the courthouses, but it didn’t make it through,” he said. Allen feels that it is unlikely the county will be forced to reopen on a particular date, as the court system is indicating it will defer to counties to make those decisions locally.

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