In-person hearings to resume Monday at courthouse

courthouse reopening

Michele Ponder, bookkeeper in the Calhoun County Courthouse, uses marking tape to keep people off the bench and walking in the correct direction inside the courthouse in preparation for the building's reopening Monday.

The Calhoun County Courthouse will resume in-person court hearings Monday, as courthouses across Alabama begin reopening following an order this week from the state Supreme Court.

The court’s order, issued Wednesday, allows presiding circuit judges around Alabama discretion to resume hearings after Friday, though jury trials still are barred at least through Sept. 14. Presiding judges can extend restrictions at their courthouses, the order said.

Calhoun County Circuit Judge Brian Howell, who presides over the 7th Judicial Circuit, said Friday that in-person hearings at the courthouse will resume Monday.

“It’s still not going to be everything it was,” Howell said. 

Howell told The Star in mid-March the courthouse’s functions were limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. Only “essential” hearings, such as first appearances for those arrested and mandatory hearings for those served with protection-from-abuse orders, could be held.

According to Howell, people who come into a courtroom will have to stay 6 feet apart from one another. Depending on the size of the courtroom and the docket, he said, the number of people allowed inside will vary. He said witnesses and victims in criminal cases would take priority over the general public.

“You always hesitate as a judge to limit access to the courtroom, Howell said. “But obviously, if there’s a public health emergency, you’ve got to make a tough decision.”

Because grand juries have not met during the pandemic, Howell said, he expects district courts may be “backed up” with criminal cases. Howell said there might be a slight backlog in circuit courts due to civil cases.

To alleviate that, he said, the courthouse may hold grand jury sessions more frequently than normal. The circuit judge said he hopes grand jury sessions will resume in August, but the courthouse is waiting for approval from the state Supreme Court before that happens.

The state Supreme Court’s order also allows district, probate and municipal courts to resume in-person hearings. Jennifer Weems, Jacksonville’s municipal judge, said the city court had been handling traffic issues and payments through the pandemic, but will resume holding in-person hearings on May 26. 

She said there were more than 100 people set for court on the city’s next docket — May 19 — and she didn’t want that many people in the courtroom.

Normally, Weems said, court would be held at 1 p.m., but she plans to stagger times between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on court dates in June and July.

“We’re only going to let a certain amount of people in at a time,” Weems said. 

On those dates, Weems said, everyone who enters the courtroom will be required to wear a mask and have their temperature taken. She said extra police officers will be there to call people in if anyone winds up having to wait outside the courtroom.

Defense attorney Bill Broome said he’s concerned about the backlog of cases in court systems. But until a vaccine is developed for COVID-19, he said, he doesn’t think jury trials will be like they were for a long time.

“I know it sounds unusual, but sometimes people are innocent,” Broome said. “And a case hanging over your head is stressful.”

Broome referred to one of his clients, who maintains his innocence after being accused of a sex crime, as an example. Broome said his client was supposed to have a trial in April, but it likely won’t happen until next year.

“He’s still having to go through that in the pandemic,” Broome said. “He professes his innocence, but he’s got the cloud of a sex abuse case hanging over him.”

He said trial delays are bad for defendants in general, but it’s worse for defendants in jail.

“If you’re out on bond, you’re out,” Broome said. “If you’re in jail, you’re waiting to have a trial.”