Courts could be playing catch-up for the next year due to COVID, experts say

"What is the difference between questioning someone wearing a face mask and not?" - Dan Glazier, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri

Megan Lynch
June 05, 2020 - 8:45 am

ST. LOUIS, MO (KMOX) - Since mid-March many legal issues have been on hold.

The coronavirus pandemic made most in-person hearings and trials a serious risk.

Just this week, more courthouses started to re-open.

How will the legal system balance public health concerns with due process in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Chief Judges have had to rethink how day-to-day business gets done.  As you learned in our last report, many courts have turned to virtual platforms.

Dan Glazier, Executive Director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, is concerned about what that might mean for already disadvantaged groups.   

"Our clients, those who are on the economic edge, they don't have access to that technology," says Glazier, who also tells KMOX he's concerned about how evidence and questioning witnesses might be handled in a virtual court setting.  In-person, he wonders if cues will be lost when someone wears a face on the stand.  

Other attorneys tell KMOX they're willing to wait rather than schedule virtual hearings, because they feel they can present a better case in person.

Experts tell us the legal system may be working to catch up for the next year.  Criminal trials likely won't resume in many jurisdictions until July or August.  Some dockets are on hold until the fall.  And a flood of new cases are likely on the way.

Madison County States Attorney Tom Gibbins says there are only so many judges, prosecutors, clerks, etc. to handle these legal matters.  "You can only do so many at a time."

Plus, courts will have limited space and new restrictions to protect public health.  St. Louis County Presiding Judge Michael Burton points out, "we want to make sure that anyone that comes into this court is going to be safe."

John Erbes, with SIU School of Law in Carbondale, points out any plans to get things back on track could be disrupted in coming months if there's a second wave of the pandemic.

How will courts function after the pandemic?

Dan Glazier shares his concerns:

"This is uncharted territory and it remains to be seen.  But that's why we must proceed carefully, deliberately and always keeping in mind the bedrock principle of due process, equal access to the court system."

KMOX News will continue to cover the impact of COVID on the courts.

Previous reports:

Courts face a mounting backlog due to COVID closures

Jury trials still on hold due to pandemic

Courts embrace new virtual reality after coronavirus

Advocates fear post-COVID justice crisis

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