Wisconsin courts can resume in-person hearings and jury trials if they can come up with plans to protect participants and observers from the coronavirus, under an order from a divided state Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court in March suspended in-person hearings and jury trials, ordering judges to continue trials to a date after May 22. A task force convened by Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack and comprised of judges, court clerks and attorneys convened in April. Its recommendations released on May 15 included calls for participants and spectators to wear face masks, observe social distancing standards and use hand sanitizers, and clerks to include a note in jury summons detailing the precautions the court has taken.
The Supreme Court issued an order Friday evening that allows individual municipal and circuit courts to resume in-person proceedings, including jury trials, on a county-by-county basis if the courts prepare a plan to do so safely.
Each plan must mandate face masks for everyone in the courtroom, although a judge can allow a witness to testify without one, spell out practices for cleaning frequently touched surfaces, and require courthouse signs directing people to hand sanitizer.
The chief judge of each judicial administrative district must approve the plans before proceedings can resume. The chief judge's signature would invalidate the Supreme Court's suspensions and allow hearings and trials to resume in the local court that submitted the plan.
Justices Rebecca Bradley and Daniel Kelly disagreed with Friday's order. They wrote that the Supreme Court should simply let its orders suspending in-person proceedings expire and leave running courtrooms up to individual judges.
As of Tuesday, there were nearly 16,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, with 517 deaths, according to the state Department of Health Services. Of all the people tested, 4% of them were positive — the same as the day before.
The actual number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest that people can be infected without feeling sick.
State health officials are urging caution. There are no state limitations in place and local governments are lifting restrictions, and allowing businesses to reopen and more people to congregate in public and private.
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