Kent County’s District and Circuit courts will begin reopening to the public.
A memorandum issued jointly by the two courts at the end of May, sets out the schedule of restoring the courts for regular operations.
Courts reopen generally on June 8, however, the Clerks offices will remain closed the public except for limited reasons. The plan is for the Clerks offices to reopen on July 20.
While court proceeds will start, jury trials are not expected to resume until October 5. In the meantime, both courts will be hearing “an increasing number of matters in-person and remotely.” Parties to proceedings will be notified and questions should be directed to the respective courts.
The courthouse will operate under public health protocols. That will include limits on non-staff and counsel in the courtrooms: a cap of 10 in the Circuit Court and a cap of 8 in the District Court.
Other restrictions will apply and prior health screening is required prior to entering the courthouse, including a temperature check and hand sanitizing. Face coverings and six-foot social distancing will be enforced. The courthouse will be closed daily for a midday sanitizing of the building.
Kent County’s resident judges, District Court Judge John E. Nunn, III, and Circuit Court Judge Harris P. Murphy, have been working on the re-opening plan since the shut down began. Relying on the federal commitments to local government in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, the CARES Act, both courts will be making safety modifications to facilitate safer proceedings for the court employees and public.
“I have ordered the Plexiglass,” Judge Murphy advised in mid-May as the reopening preparations began. Since then, courthouse staff marked off safe distances for CDC-recommended social distancing as the public enters the building.
The judges held a Skype forum on Friday, June 5, organized by the Kent County Bar Association to provide attorneys with an opportunity to ask questions.
Judge Nunn stressed the importance of reopening the District Court to resolve pending criminal matters. The Court of Appeals has temporarily suspended the tolling of speedy criminal trials and statutes of limitation until the stay at home orders are lifted and the public can return to its business.
In addition to criminal issues, Judge Nunn noted that landlords seeking to sue for evictions will need to demonstrate they have complied with the CARES Act.
“No compliance? The case will be dismissed,” judge Nunn said. “There will be a learning curve for the landlords related to the CARES Act.”
Judge Nunn did not anticipate trials to start until after July.
“We will start by working on preliminary hearings,” Judge Nunn continued, explaining that the courtroom is limited by its size to eight members of the public. “We expect dockets of about the quarter of the usual size.”
The Kent District Court is one of, if not the smallest court facility in the state and space management is a challenge even without the COVID impact.
“Judge Nunn and I felt the more we can do to safely get back to presiding over matters the better,” Judge Murphy said.
The Skype call with attorneys was plagued with audio problems. Also, the issue of adequate broadband was raised.
Remote access “comes with its own set of issues,” Judge Murphy observed. “We will make whatever accommodations” are reasonable to enable courts to hear cases. Judge Murphy pointed to the backlog of important matters, including child custody and child support matters.
The judges stressed that the courts were following the guidance of the CDC and the local health department.
“We will try the minimize to risk as much as possible,” Judge Murphy said.