Coronavirus Reopening Process in Question
The Covid-19 pandemic has hit close to home now. Today the judiciary released a statement none of us wanted to see – an employee at the El Paso County Courthouse has tested positive for Coronavirus. Given the resurgence of cases nationwide, and in Colorado, with 20/20 hindsight it seems inevitable that any public place, regardless of precautions, is completely safe.
Were You in Court?
First, the affected courtrooms & dates:
- Division 15 criminal docket on 7/27/2020
- Division 19 4-hour proceeding on 7/29/2020
If you were in one of the above-referenced divisions, you are asked to contact the court administrator at 04Administration@judicial.state.co.us for details and contact tracing. And to start 14 days quarantine.
Covid-19 Courthouse Plan Working – Until Now
As we have detailed over the past several months, the 4th Judicial District (comprising El Paso & Teller Counties) has been gradually reopening for business. This process has been measured, and seemed to be working – most family law hearings, for example, are being conducted via video conference or telephone, while only a very few “emergency” type situations have necessitated in-person hearings. And now that the Colorado Court of Appeals has upheld the legality of WebEx video hearings in family law cases, we can practice law safely without concern that the judgment may be overturned for lack of a live hearing.
(For example, last week I had my first fully-contested in-person hearing at the courthouse, but have had plenty of contested cases since the Coronavirus pandemic struck).
Note – it’s almost certainly unfair to in any way link this positive Covid result to courthouse operations – it sounds like just one employee (so far), which is more consistent with a person being exposed at the grocery store or barber shop. I’m no doctor, but exposure at the courthouse would typically imply multiple positives traceable to there, not just one. However, no doubt there will be some intense testing at the courthouse to make sure nothing has spread.
Courthouse Back to Limited Emergency Services
Presumably the press release will be followed-up with more specifics from Chief Judge Bain, but the 4th Judicial District has retrenched. But from the information provided, the result of this Coronavirus positive is that the El Paso Courthouse is closed to in-person hearings for two weeks, other than limited emergency operations.
For the emergency services related to family law include:
- Protection Orders (AKA “restraining orders”)
- Motions to Restrict Parenting Time
- Abduction Prevention Measures
Other hearings will likely continue (contact the individual division for details), but will be back to being conducted via telephone, or Zoom/Webex. More information is available on the El Paso County Courts website.
New Chief Judge Coronavirus Operations Order
ADDENDUM 8/4/2020. Chief Judge Bain has issued a new Chief Judge Order 20-26, to implement the above. It is applicable for the El Paso County Courthouse only (i.e. not Teller County), and is in effect from Monday August 3 through Friday August 14, 2020. The order does not really contain any additional details beyond what was reported above, and what has been contained in the prior Chief Judge Orders issued each month since the Covid-19 pandemic first started affecting Courthouse operations back in March. Key points:
- Courthouse closed to all but the emergency services listed above (for family law).
- Judges have discretion to do the emergency proceedings in-person or via telephone/video conference.
- Efilings accepted in all cases, paper filings at the Courthouse only for emergency services.
- Masks mandatory when in courthouse.
Covid-19 Shows System is Working
OK, that may be an odd thing to say – after all, Coronavirus is no laughing matter, and cutting back services can hardly be deemed a “success”. Or can it? Positive Covid-19 tests are inevitable, at least until the virus disappears or can be controlled by a vaccine. As businesses and schools reopen, we will, unfortunately, be receiving more notices like the one from the judiciary – it’s what contact tracing is all about. Life goes on during the pandemic, but when Coronavirus flares up, we take precautions, and do contact tracing – as is being done now.
Moreover, like the rest of the country, Colorado’s courts have had a crash course in remote participation over the past 4 months, and have performed admirably (NOTE – this is a personal observation, not sucking up, since the chances of anyone at the courthouse actually reading this are slim).
The paradigm for a contested hearing has changed completely. We’ve gone from an occasional witness being heard telephonically to large-scale remote participation by all concerned, and the system works. The wheels of justice continue to turn. Remote hearings are not perfect – they have occasional glitches, and because they are more cumbersome, they take longer than in-person hearings.
But with each passing day, the courts are applying lessons learned, and getting better at the “new normal”. And once the Covid-19 pandemic is a distant memory, I would not be at all surprised if there was some positive lasting effect – offering parties, and even lawyers on occasion, more flexibility to appear remotely.
In the meantime, our best wishes to the courthouse employee, and fingers crossed the virus has not spread further in the courthouse. Note you can always see our continually-updated blog post for the updates on how Coronavirus is affecting courthouse operations in the 4th Judicial District.
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