Douglas County District Court limits public presence in courtrooms, hallways amid COVID-19 outbreak

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

A sign on the front doors of the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St., warns visitors about limits on public presence in courtrooms and the hallways of the courthouse amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.

Douglas County District Court is staying open but restricting access to courtrooms effective immediately, according to orders issued Friday.

Except for criminal jury trials, members of the public will not be permitted entry into the courtrooms or adjacent hallways unless they are a party to a case, an attorney representing a party or a witness who is subpoenaed, according to the order. In addition, the court is immediately suspending DNA swabs and urinalysis collection, and court services officers are now authorized to allow probationers to report by telephone rather than in person at the courthouse.

Chief Judge James McCabria issued multiple administrative orders Thursday and Friday in response to growing concerns over the coronavirus disease, COVID-19, and a Thursday order from the Kansas Supreme Court for all of the state’s district courts to formulate plans to continue operations safely.

McCabria’s orders note that for many people, the disease appears to cause only flu-like symptoms; for others, however, it can pose a serious risk.

“This Court recognizes the significant number of identified and projected cases of COVID-19 and the severity of risk posed to the public, and we are working closely in conjunction with local public health authorities to actively implement necessary procedures to address current concerns,” one order states.

The hallways of the downtown Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center are frequently crowded with parties awaiting hearings. The building also houses operations for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Lawrence Police Department, the Michael J. Malone Douglas County Law Library, Douglas County Court Services and more.

The court’s orders only pertain to the courtrooms and the hallways outside of them, meaning the other offices in the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center will continue to set their own rules and policies for public access.

“This Court recognizes that the public and press have a qualified First Amendment right of access to court proceedings,” the order says. “The Court also takes seriously its responsibility to administer the law with due regard for the balance of the rights of litigants, the public and the Court’s ability to protect the integrity and safety of the proceedings.”

The order does create a system for people who are not directly involved with a trial or court proceeding to request access to the courtroom. Anyone who wants such access may contact the division judge and “make application for authority to attend,” the order notes, and “each judge shall give due consideration to such requests and make timely response to same.”

The order provides some built-in exceptions for family and friends appearing for weddings and adoption proceedings, as well as media.

Anyone in the courthouse may be subject to questions about their recent and current health conditions, including travel and other risk factors, according to one order.

The orders leave discretion to the division judges regarding what matters will be heard at the courthouse. It does allow for some hearings that would typically occur in person to be held over the phone.

“Counsel and parties should feel free to request, where appropriate, appearances by telephone on all civil matters and on any specially set non-evidentiary criminal matter,” one order states.

There are no jury trials scheduled for the week beginning Monday; however, there is at least one set to begin Monday, March 23. The court is still reviewing how these issues may impact any trials, and the district court clerk has already heard from concerned citizens who have received jury duty summons, according to one order.

“Further administrative orders may issue that affect such trial settings, and individual divisions may take such actions as they deem appropriate to address any case in that division,” one order states.

In addition to DNA swabbing and UA testing, home visits are suspended until further notice, according to one order. Court Services officers are also authorized to allow probationers to report by telephone rather than in person.

Up-to-date information will be posted on individual dockets online at douglascountyks.org/depts/district-court, according to the orders.


U.S. District Court for District of Kansas bars those potentially exposed, postpones hearings

The United States District Court for the District of Kansas issued orders March 13 barring people who have possibly been exposed to COVID-19 from entering the courthouse and postponing criminal nonemergency hearings, according to a release from the court clerk.

A person who was asymptomatic at the time but reportedly later tested positive for COVID-19 attended a meeting of creditors on the first floor of the Robert J. Dole Federal Courthouse on March 10, according to the release. The Bankruptcy Clerk’s Office in Kansas City, Kan., closed for two weeks beginning March 13 as a precaution, but it is processing matters remotely, according to the release.

“Emergency hearings” in criminal cases, as defined by the administrative orders, include: “arraignments, detention hearings, preliminary hearings on bond revocation and revocation of supervised release, hearings on motions to review detention orders and any hearings on appeals from detention orders,” according to the release.

All other federal court offices, including District Court, Bankruptcy Court and Probation and Pretrial, remain open, according to the release.


More coverage: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

As the pandemic continues, the Journal-World will be making coverage of COVID-19 available outside of the paywall on LJWorld.com.

Find all coverage of city, county and state responses to the virus at: ljworld.com/coronavirus/


Contact Mackenzie Clark

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