The 30th Circuit Court is operational again, under an order from Presiding Judge Michael Hendrickson. However, public observation of proceedings is not permitted under the current restrictions.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides defendants in criminal cases with the right to a public trial, but concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic have led Judge Hendrickson to ban the public from courtrooms and adjacent areas. The order provides no means for the public to monitor proceedings.

The Sixth Amendment right to a public trial allows the public to oversee proceedings and thereby prevent abuses that may occur in secret proceedings. It is a cornerstone of the U.S. justice system.

Judge Hendrickson’s administrative order follows Friday's expiration of the Missouri Supreme Court's order of suspension for the state's courts.

According to the administrative order posted in the Webster County Courthouse Friday, the county is moving out of the Missouri Supreme Court’s suspension of most in-person court proceedings, referred to as “phase zero” operations.

Hendrickson's order outlines three phases for gradual reopening. The courts are now in phase one. The three phases are timed to proceed in intervals of at least 14 days.

Phase one, the current phase, began Saturday and offers the following restrictions:

• Members of the public who are not litigants, witnesses or victims involved in a court proceeding are banned from courtrooms and common areas adjacent to courtrooms, including hallways, stairwells, elevators, clerk offices, break rooms, jury rooms, witness meeting rooms and law libraries.

• Six feet of social distancing is required for those present, and tape may be used to mark six-foot distances were practical.

• People with COVID-19 symptoms will not be allowed access to courtroom facilities.

• Use of face masks by all parties is encouraged, but no witness shall be allowed to wear a face mask while testifying under oath.

• Only the most critical in-person court proceedings will be held, and occupancy will be limited to 10 people or fewer whenever possible. A presiding judge may increase that occupancy limitation for good cause on a case-by-case basis but never at the expense of the strict six-foot social distancing requirement.

• Teleconferences shall be used for hearings when practical.

• Jury trials will not be held.

• Extra janitorial cleaning and hand sanitizer use will be requested by the county commissioners, and these will be paid for with funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The court will enter into phase two on June 1. Under phase two, non-critical in-person proceedings will be allowed, and occupancy will increase from 10 persons to 25% of the gallery’s seating capacity, which is 20 people in Webster County. These occupancy numbers are exclusive of the number of court personnel necessary to conduct any case, and they may be adjusted by a presiding judge for good cause. Jury trials shall resume under phase two.

Phase three is scheduled to begin June 15. Courtroom occupancy limitations will be lifted under phase three, and jury trials may be held in compliance with strict six-feet social distancing requirements. Phase three is scheduled to end June 26.

Municipal courts within the 30th Circuit will be governed by this order as well, except that their occupancy limit through each phase will be based on the number who can be present in municipal courtrooms and facilities while maintaining strict six-foot distancing.

Judge Hendrickson's order specifically notes that if local COVID-19 conditions worsen or there is a resurgence in the community, he may return the circuit to a lower operating phase, including a return to operating phase zero.

Phase zero suspended all in-person court proceedings with the exception of those necessary to protect constitutional rights of criminal defendants, including the right to a speedy trial, as well as those pertaining to critical juvenile issues, orders of protection, temporary restraining orders, emergency mental health orders, emergency guardianship and COVID-19. When possible, the court has used audiovisual technologies like teleconferencing.

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