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GALENA–The Jo Daviess County court room has been quieter than normal due to the halting of many cases as a result of the pandemic. On June 1, cases within the 15th Judicial Circuit resumed.
“With the uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic, we were unsure on how far to continue the court cases,” said Jo Daviess County Circuit Clerk Kathy Phillips. “Many cases have been continued multiple times, which means court notices to each of the parties had to be prepared and mailed. The Supreme Court has stayed any speedy trial demands, so at this time, for the safety of the public, jury trials, for the time being, have been cancelled. The court schedule has been modified so only 10 individuals will be in court at one time.”
The Jo Daviess County court system, as well as the county’s information technology staff, have been working to try to make the courts as safe as possible for court users, staff and judicial officers.
The court room has been empty in many hearings as the judge, court reporter and attorneys have all used Zoom to conduct the hearings.
“Zoom hearings are allowing cases to be heard more efficiently because you can have multiple participants without physically being together. The court has purchased additional equipment including a scanner for the courtroom, webcams, Zoom licenses and laptops to help with the new procedures,” said Phillips. “Spacing in the courtrooms have been adjusted to allow the six feet distance requirement. To enter the courthouse, security will administer temperature readings and verify everyone is wearing a mask. Plexiglas has been installed at the counter and hand sanitizer is provided for the safety of the public and employees.”
Phillips said that all participants in the hearings receive a copy of the notice and a Zoom link. The circuit clerk’s office has a kiosk set up for any individual who may need assistance or does not have access to a computer or smart phone. Zoom information can be found on the circuit clerk’s website, jodaviess.org/court.
“I don’t have the words,” said Judge Kevin Ward. “It is remarkable to me, the time frame in which we went from doing things the way they have been done the past 200 years to using Zoom. I didn’t know what Zoom was in February.”
Ward said the courts are trying to conduct as much business as possible through Zoom.
“It is a different mindset,” said Ward. “Our IT department and everyone involved in the court system, the speed for which they have adapted is amazing.”
In a typical proceeding, it varies how many are physically in the courtroom. Sometimes there are only a few people or no one physically present.
Ward said that on plea days about half show up in person and the other half attend by Zoom.
“It has been a learning process in terms of everything that we need to do for Zoom,” said Jo Daviess County State’s Attorney John Hay. “All the steps we need to take to prepare for what we need to get on to Zoom, having paperwork prepared and having documents e-filed now that we are paperless. I think in the grand scheme of things it works well. We are just working out the kinks in the system.”
Hay said he believes that his staff is getting close to having the system mastered for all hearings.
“We just argued a motion hearing this morning with Judge Kelly where I zoomed in from my office and the other attorney zoomed in from his office in Madison,” said Hay. “I think going forward, this is going to be a helpful thing because we are ready while other court systems are trying to adapt to this. We are ahead of the curve and I think this will help us get caught up as well.”
Hay said his office has a large backlog due to the courts being closed.
“There are some decisions that we didn’t charge people right away due to the COVID pandemic, just for the safety of the individual and the officers,” said Hay. “Now we are starting to file charges that in the past would have been done immediately. It is a backlog that we need to get caught up on, but I have every faith that we will do so.”
Ward said that Hay and Phillips have done a lot behind the scenes to keep the judicial system going during the court’s closure.
“Between Mr. Hay and Ms. Phillips, you are looking at two people that by and large anything that got accomplished when we weren’t physically here, they were the ones doing it,” said Ward. “It has been very impressive. Through Zoom, through paperless orders, I would say we got a bit done.”
Phillips said the credit goes to the IT group at Jo Daviess County who have worked hard to get the system up and running in a short period of time.
“I never would have imagined doing court like this before,” said Hay.
“We are doing everything we can to make it as easy as possible to take care of the needs of the public without putting anyone in danger,” said Phillips.