Montana courts to roll out protective measures amid coronavirus concerns

Montana courts to roll out protective measures amid coronavirus concerns

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Yellowstone County District Court judges

From left, District Court Judge Don Harris, Montana Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson, and District Court Judges Gregory Todd, Mary Jane Knisely, Colette Davies, Rod Souza, Jessica Fehr and Michael Moses in Yellowstone County Courthouse on Jan. 4, 2019. Not pictured is District Court Judge Ashley Harada. 

Beginning Monday, courts across Montana will put in place new measures to prevent the spread of illness amid concerns about the new coronavirus.

Mike McGrath, chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, has instructed all state courts to adopt a list of practices beginning Monday.

Parties set for trial through April 30 will be encouraged to request a postponement in order to minimize courthouse foot traffic.

Any juror considered at risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if they contract the virus must be released from jury duty if requested. That covers anyone over age 60 or anyone with underlying chronic health conditions.

Other jurors considered at high or medium risk for exposure to COVID-19 should be excused from duty, notified by a phone call. That group is defined by the CDC as anyone who has traveled to China, South Korea and most European countries within the past 14 days, or anyone with direct contact to a person who’s been diagnosed in the past 14 days.

Yellowstone County District Court Judge Rod Souza, who is the chief judge of the district, said the eight judges are discussing ways to limit the number of people in a room together. For instance, in large jury calls, the jury pool might be separated into different courtrooms and communicated with over video conferencing. 

Souza said the jail inmates previously scheduled to be driven to the courthouse for regular morning hearings on Monday and Tuesday will now remain at the jail and be seen over video. 

Souza said the judges would stay in touch with the county attorney's office and public defender's office to update plans as the situation evolves. 

Other measures the Montana Supreme Court is requiring include having courts use video conferencing and telephonic conferencing as much as possible and encouraging litigants to handle any matters possible online, such as paying speeding tickets.

“At a time like this, it is especially critical that we continue ahead with an organized society that is able to demonstrate that we can absorb this potential crisis and continue to function in an orderly manner,” McGrath wrote.

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