CORONAVIRUS

Iowa courts to start face-to-face services

Orders require face masks and possible county expenses

Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justice Susan Christensen share a moment during the January 2019 swearing in of Gov. Kim Rey
Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justice Susan Christensen share a moment during the January 2019 swearing in of Gov. Kim Reynolds in Des Moines. After Cady’s death in November, Christensen became chief justice. On Thursday, she released three orders governing the reopening of Iowa’s courtrooms in the coming months. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court issued three orders late Thursday to guide judges and court staffers on how to restart face-to-face court services this week in all 99 Iowa counties.

The orders require many steps to ensure the safety of judges, attorneys, court staff, defendants, litigants and the public — including the wearing of face masks or shields.

“It is so very important that Iowans feel comfortable returning to their courthouses for essential court services that must be done face-to-face,” Chief Justice Susan Christensen said. “We are unwavering in our commitment to provide fair and impartial justice to those who enter our courtrooms and to provide outstanding service to everyone while mitigating the risk of COVID-19.”

Christensen acknowledged the information, guidance and recommendations provided by the Jumpstart Jury Task Force and Jumpstart Family Law Trials Task Force, many of which are adopted by the court, and the judicial council, the University of Iowa College of Public Health, the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She also noted implementation of the order will vary based on the physical layout, local needs and resources of courthouses.

The order contains recommendations that could require county boards of supervisors approve expenses for cleaning and it “encourages” use of air purifiers and improvements to air flow and ventilation in court-controlled areas.

The courtrooms will look different, and court proceedings will be different going forward, according to the order.

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Hallways outside courtrooms will be monitored, and people won’t be allowed to gather in the halls. Everyone will be required to wear a mask or face shield.

Hearings and trials also will have new scheduling processes, which will likely require longer breaks and fewer people being allowed in the courtroom at one time to allow for social distancing.

As recommended by the jury task force, participants in a trial will be required to wear a face shield that shows a person’s entire face, to help prevent any miscommunication and allow the jury to judge the credibility of witnesses.

In some cases, up to the judge’s discretion, witnesses may testify by video streaming from a secure location outside the courtroom.

Technology will be used as much as possible to ensure safety, according to the order.

Judges and attorneys are encouraged to use phone and video conferencing whenever possible, including proceedings for informal family law, mediations, hearings and trials, with some exceptions. If people involved in the proceedings don’t have access to technology, the courts are directed to provide technology and confidential space to participate in video court proceedings.

Jury trials will not start until Sept. 14, as previously ordered.

For family law cases where both litigants are self-represented and without lawyers, such as divorces with or without children, legal separations, paternity cases and modifications for child custody, visitation and child support, the order requires the court districts to develop plans for informal family law programs — which expedite less complicated cases — by Aug. 17.

The family law order also mandates district courts to have procedures for mediation or judicial settlement processes by Dec. 1. Family law mediation is designed to narrow the scope of the case and ensure focus is placed on relevant issues.

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

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