Jury trials have returned to the Delaware County Common Pleas Court after being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and court officials say they are keeping up with the caseload.
Delaware County Common Pleas judges David M. Gormley and James P. Schuck said Thursday the court only closed for one day, March 16, after Gov. Mike DeWine issued official stay-at-home orders and ordered many offices to close. The judges said they spent the day working with court staff and Court Administrator Kristin Schultz to figure out how to move all the hearings they could to an online setting.
Gormley said a day later on March 17, they were doing every hearing over Zoom, a video conferencing service.
Schultz reported that in the first full week of Zoom hearings, the court held 70 of them. Between March 16 and May 31, the court held 673 hearings, she added.
Gormley said the changes came with plenty of challenges.
“It’s hard to name just one,” he said. “This whole experience has just caused all of us, no matter what our role is in the community, to deal with new things and try to figure out how to solve problems we never thought we’d have to deal with before.”
Gormley added that in addition to being a judge, he’s also the employer to several court staff members and the outbreak forced him to think about what is best for the court, the staff, parties in a case, attorneys, jurors and visitors.
“It’s been a whole host of challenges, many that are unique to this setting,” he said. “Stuff that seemed inconceivable one day was a reality you were having to deal with one day later. The good thing is we’ve all managed to stay healthy.”
Gormley said the court was fortunate that the new courthouse already had many of the pieces of technology required to make the changes, and the only types of hearings the court was deferring were cases that involved a jury trial.
“Almost every other kind of hearing we were able to conduct on Zoom,” he said. “Some have been a little interesting. I had a fellow with no shirt on.”
Schuck agreed that some hearings have been interesting to say the least, adding a party in one of his cases connected to the call walking down the street while smoking a cigarette.
Overall, Schuck said the court has been ahead of the curve in Ohio.
“All in all I think, at least from what we’ve heard, we were out ahead of other counties, getting back to speed, quickly and efficiently,” Schuck said.
He added the move to online hearings has had a few benefits, and he may continue to have hearings online in the future, in specific circumstances.
“The appearance rate at proceedings went up,” Schuck said. “So many people just don’t have transportation … at least from my perspective, to the extent we can, I may just continue that when circumstances warrant it.”
Schuck said the county installed dividers and plexiglass screens in between seats in the jury box, which has allowed the court to resume having jury trials.
He joked that having people in the courtroom again has been more challenging than expected.
“We got into a groove with the Zoom hearings, so the most difficult part for me is the jury trial because there are so many people,” Schuck said.
He explained that everything needed to be re-examined to make the trials work.
“(Using social distancing guidelines) my jury room only holds seven people. We can’t bring them up in one elevator. We have a swinging door in the courtroom (that all the jurors would touch.),” Schuck said. “It’s those kinds of things that you don’t think about in a normal situation. There’s been a bit of tinkering with the process as we’ve gone on to make sure everyone’s feelings are accomodated and that everybody is safe.”
Schuck said he’s also been surprised how many people have come to jury duty.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “We can’t have trials without jurors who are willing to come and be part of the process. I was really heartened by the fact that such a large group of citizens were willing to come, mask in hand, and be part of the process. That was really nice because that allows us to continue to move forward.”
More information about the court’s guidelines can be found at https://commonpleas.co.delaware.oh.us/.
Glenn Battishill can be reached at 740-413-0903 or on Twitter @BattishillDG.