DES MOINES, Iowa – On Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a supervisory order stating that face-to-face court proceedings can commence on July 13, 2020. Still, jury trials are pushed back to September 14, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The order states counties may begin face-to-face proceedings before July 13 if the county courthouse is open to the public and the court operations in that county meet COVID-19 safety protocols recommended by state court administration.
In response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, only emergency and essential hearings have been held face-to-face since March 14, 2020. Since that time, the majority of court proceedings have been conducted by videoconference or teleconference. The order encourages the continued use of teleconferences and videoconferences whenever possible and extends many of the remote hearing deadlines until the end of the year.
“We know that people and families with pending cases are anxious to have their day in court, but we must first ensure that the public and court personnel have confidence that appropriate cautionary measures have been taken to protect their health when entering our courtrooms,” Chief Justice Susan Christensen said. “Crowded courtrooms, heavy dockets, and jury trials require Iowans to gather in county courthouses and courtrooms in close proximity and for extended periods of time. Those situations are contrary to social distancing and other public health directives.”
In an effort to balance safety concerns with critical court system functions, Christensen said, “We have spoken with public health experts, court users, legal organizations, and members of our new Jump Start Jury Trials Task Force. It is nearly unanimous that, at this time, we cannot safely resume face-to-face court proceedings on June 1 as we initially hoped. On July 13, once protocols are in place for safely opening our courtrooms to the public, we will cautiously move forward with face-to-face, nonjury trials. For the two months following that time, we will continue to work towards preparing our courtrooms for jury trials set to commence September 14.”
State court administration is currently working with county and public health officials to determine the criteria and protocols which include adequate supplies of personal protection equipment, appropriate screening of all who enter the courthouse, ability to maintain social distancing through all court procedures, and high level cleaning. State court administration will also monitor for any regional outbreaks of COVID-19.
The supreme court issued two additional orders today. One lists priority cases and duties to guide judges, magistrates, and court staff in the scheduling, hearing, and handling of cases. Judges, magistrates, and staff are directed to exercise their judgment and give priority based on the facts and circumstances of each case.
The subsequent order creates the Jumpstart Family Law Task Force to make recommendations to the supreme court to help facilitate decision making on how to proceed with family law trials when they resume, including ways to prioritize family law cases that have been postponed by COVID-19.
The recommendations are to ensure parties’ fundamental rights while protecting the health and safety of parties, court staff, attorneys, judges, and all Iowans who access courthouses.