CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus dictates changes at federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids

No grand juries, trials until after May 11

People walk down the steps of the federal courthouse, 111 Seventh Ave. SE, in Cedar Rapids. The building remains open, b
People walk down the steps of the federal courthouse, 111 Seventh Ave. SE, in Cedar Rapids. The building remains open, but federal trials and grand juries have been delayed until May and hearings have moved online because of coronavirus restrictions. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Federal court proceedings have slowed because of the coronavirus crisis, with grand juries on hold and criminal and civil trials pushed ahead, all in an effort to keep the public, witnesses, judges, defendants and lawyers safe.

“Today’s answers are not tomorrow’s,” U.S. Chief Judge Leonard Strand said, referring to the court’s administrative orders that quickly changed and evolved through March, along with the pandemic itself.

“I remember we started out having court security ask health screening questions as people came into the courthouse, and then, over a weekend, we stopped all jury proceedings. It may change again.”

Strand said the main priority is to keep everybody safe, but it’s like “walking a tightrope” because the court has an obligation to prosecutors and defendants to keep court cases moving.

Many of the court hearings — initial appearances, arraignments, detention, preliminary, probation and supervised release — are being conducted by video and phone conferencing.

Clerk of Court Robert Phelps said his office is working with the 10 county jails that house federal inmates in the Northern District of Iowa and the inmates’ lawyers to ensure the jails had video technology. The defendants stay in jail for those hearings, and the defense and prosecution lawyers also can appear by video.

All grand juries have been postponed through May 11, along with jury trials. Bench (non-jury) trials will continue to go forward.

ACCOMMODATIONS

At this point, pleadings and sentencings continue to be in-person, Strand said. Some pleadings have had lawyers appearing by phone, but defendants must be in court. There is enough space in courtrooms, he noted, to adhere to social distancing restrictions.

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Phelps said judges also can make social-distancing accommodations if a pleading or sentencing has high interest.

As an example, Andrew Shaw, the leader of a large marijuana trafficking ring connected to the fatal stabbing of Chris Bagley of Walker in 2018, was sentenced last month. Bagley’s family was placed in one jury room, and Shaw’s family in another courtroom, where they could listen to the hearing.

A Gazette reporter and a television reporter were allowed in the courtroom, at appropriate distances from the judge, lawyers and defendant.

These changes also are in place at the Sioux City courthouse, the other courthouse in Iowa’s Northern District.

Both courthouses also have shortened their hours — 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. — and will resume normal hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., once pandemic restrictions are over.

The April 15 naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens — which attracts large groups of friends and family — had to be postponed.

Many of those who work for other agencies housed in the U.S. District Court building — 111 Seventh Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids — are working remotely, as are the 15 or so employees in the clerk of court’s office.

Strand said there has been “amazing” cooperation among the agencies to make things work and continue court every day, noting modern technology has helped keep people connected. U. S. Attorney Peter Deegan Jr. agreed, saying the U.S. Department of Justice has provided “great support” to the federal districts.

2008 FLOOD

The 2008 Cedar Rapids flood — which inundated the federal courthouse, now the Cedar Rapids City Hall — helped prepare court employees to handle a crisis. In 2008, courtrooms and offices moved to a temporary building, as did federal prosecutors.

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Strand, a magistrate judge during the 2008 flood, said those who led the district through that crisis — Senior Judge Linda Reade, who was chief judge at the time, Phelps and others — are still around to help the court through this difficult period.

BACKLOG OF CASES

The downside to delaying trials and hearings will be the backlog awaiting action once the restrictions are lifted.

It will increase workloads, and the backlog may last a while, Strand said.

Deegan said he doesn’t expect the backlog to be that big.

“You have to remember that about 95 percent of the cases in this district don’t go to trial and a guilty plea is made,” Deegan said. “So there may be a (trial) backlog, but it won’t be unmanageable, It does depend on how long this goes.”

Strand said he tries to remember “this is just temporary, and it’s going to end some day, and we will get back to normal.”

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

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.