CORONAVIRUS

Linn County puts priority on face-to-face court hearings

But within the 6th Judicial District, it's flexible

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden speaks Sept. 16 at a hearing for Drew Blahnik at the Linn County Courthouse in
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden speaks Sept. 16 at a hearing for Drew Blahnik at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids. Blahnik, charged with the first-degree murder of Chris Bagley, was seeking a change of venue. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — In an effort to move courts forward amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, district judges in Linn County recently switched from having phone and video hearings to making all hearings in-person unless one of the lawyers, defendants or litigants involved has a serious coronavirus concern.

This isn’t a 6th Judicial District Court mandate and isn’t a requirement of the Iowa Supreme Court. The state justices’ latest order allowed in-person hearings to resume July 13, but also encouraged using phone and video conferencing for non-evidentiary and pretrial hearings “to the greatest extent possible.”

While also in the 6th Judicial District, judges in Johnson County aren’t required to abide by the same agreement as in Linn County.

Its hearings, which may be either in-person and remote, are handled based on each judge’s discretion.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Paul Miller, who is interim chief judge while Chief Judge Patrick Grady is on medical leave, believes the high number of coronavirus cases doesn’t justify bringing in more people to a space-limited Johnson County Courthouse where social distancing is difficult. Most hearings can be handled by phone or video, but it’s a case-by-case basis.

The Linn County judges made the decision a few weeks ago to bring some “normalcy” back to court proceedings, and they thought it would provide consistency for lawyers and defendants.

This Linn County agreement, however, isn’t set in stone. Each judge has discretion, and they don’t seem to agree on which hearings should be face-to-face.

Linn Judges differ

Judge Ian Thornhill, who is the presiding criminal judge this month and feels most strongly about this decision, reasons that the Linn County Courthouse is safer now with protocols in place and extra sanitizing and cleaning than back in March when the pandemic began in Iowa.

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Anyone entering the building is required to wear a mask or face shield, Thornhill pointed out. And everyone in a court proceeding, including judges, must wear a mask or face shield.

“This is serious business, and it requires in-person interaction, especially on the criminal end,” Thornhill said.

Thornhill said it’s important for him to see defendants or witnesses when making a credibility decision.

“That’s hard to do over the phone or even by video,” he said.

If there are contested issues in a case, such as over bail or probation revocations, those are more efficiently handled if everyone is in a room together to hash out the problems, Thornhill said. Cases haven’t been moving like they should, he said, and he thinks having the lawyers in front of him will spur quicker resolutions.

remote still an option

Judge Mary Chicchelly said it makes sense to continue to handle pleas, even in felony cases, in writing, as allowed by the state Supreme Court. The bail reviews, initial hearings and probation revocations also could continue via video or phone.

Judge Fae Hoover said she is concerned about the high number of coronavirus cases. The state Supreme Court order still encourages remote hearings through December, she noted.

“We have to remember we are still in a pandemic, as much as the court wants to get back to business, health and safety remains at the forefront,” Hoover said. “Our way of doing business will be different, even after this is over.”

Judge Christopher Bruns said he wasn’t opposed to in-person hearings as long as judges are open to making exceptions when appropriate. He wants the parties to feel free to ask for a hearing by phone or video, and each judge should consider those requests based on each case.

“There’s nothing universal,” Bruns said. “All cases are like snowflakes. No two are the same.”

Mixed bag for lawyers

Defense lawyers and prosecutors both disagree with the assertion that cases aren’t being resolved fast enough and that in-person hearings are needed every time.

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Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said the 71 cases that have been resolved before they were set to go to trial Sept. 14 might cast doubt on the theory that cases are not being resolved. Those cases included ones pending from earlier in the pandemic and a few more recent cases. Of the 71, 17 were felonies and 54 were misdemeanors.

There also was one domestic assault case that had a non-jury trial that resulted in a conviction, Vander Sanden noted.

Vander Sanden said he thinks defense lawyers and prosecutors are making “good faith” efforts to resolve cases.

He acknowledges nobody likely is interested in having a long, complicated trial right now because of concerns about having a jury pool during the pandemic.

Vander Sanden said his office still is pushing cases as “aggressively and conscientiously as we can, given the limited resources of the court system.”

First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said he was unclear about which circumstances the judges will allow to be a phone or video hearing.

“Bottom line, we are going to do what they tell us because they have the authority,” Maybanks said. “We would rather go to court all the time, but the (coronavirus) numbers don’t justify it.”

Matt Shimanovsky, an Iowa City defense lawyer, said he agreed. Some of the Johnson County judges were pushing for more in-person hearings a few weeks ago, he said, but that has varied with each judge.

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He said one senior judge ordered an in-person restitution hearing for one of his clients who had no means to pay. Shimanovsky provided the court with her financial information and other details that the woman had health risks and had been going in and out of a hospital to take care of her premature newborn.

Finally, interim Chief Judge Miller stepped in and canceled the hearing. He ruled the woman couldn’t pay the restitution, Shimanovsky said.

Moving to in-person hearings seems to be “picking on” the poor because they are more likely at risk for health issues, Shimanovsky asserted.

Iowa State Public Defender Jeff Wright said there is no uniform way of handling hearings during the pandemic. Just as in the 6th Judicial District, judges have discretion.

Wright’s job is keep the public defenders safe, and he hopes they can avoid unnecessary exposure. Fortunately, he said, there have been only a handful of lawyers in quarantine throughout the state throughout the pandemic.

“The general belief (among judges) is that being in the same room with the attorneys leads to resolutions, but whether the benefit outweighs the risk ...,” Wright said. “It’s going to take a long time to work through this, no matter what.”

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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