Circuit court reopens but access remains restricted, COVID-19 protocols in place

Courthouse visitors will be screened at designated entry, masks required

By Buck Collier, Special Correspondent
Posted 6/3/20

HERMANN — Gasconade County administrators are hoping to avoid large-scale confusion today at the courthouse as the two circuit courtrooms resume business under a detailed set of protocols aimed …

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Circuit court reopens but access remains restricted, COVID-19 protocols in place

Courthouse visitors will be screened at designated entry, masks required

Posted

HERMANN — Gasconade County administrators are hoping to avoid large-scale confusion today at the courthouse as the two circuit courtrooms resume business under a detailed set of protocols aimed at protecting against the coronavirus.

One of those protocols will have people kept outside the courthouse while they wait for their cases to be taken up by a judge.

The courthouse reopened for business Monday under the new protocols, which includes having a sheriff’s deputy stationed at the south-side door to screen everyone coming into the building — not just those arriving to have their cases heard in either the main second-floor courtroom or the first-floor courtroom of Associate Circuit Judge Ada Brehe-Krueger.

Indeed, the new set of guidelines that call for the wearing of masks and the checking of temperatures applies to courthouse employees as well as anyone conducting business with the various count government departments.

Sheriff Mark A. Williams Thursday discussed a detailed set of proposed measures that dovetailed with recommendations issued earlier by 20th Circuit Court Presiding Judge I.I. “Ike” Lamke for the reopening of the two courtrooms. The reopening of the courtrooms is coming later than Lamke had hoped because the materials necessary for the screenings were not on hand and had to be purchased. Likewise, the county’s commissioners initially were prepared to hire a law enforcement officer for the screening position, but now it appears that duty will be performed by a deputy sheriff.

The guidelines discussed Thursday are subject to change, officials said, noting that Monday and Tuesday would serve as something of a trial in the reopening of the courthouse, which has been locked down for the past several weeks. Beginning the new guidelines on Monday could make it easier for officials to adjust the guidelines if necessary by today’s reopening of the two circuit courtrooms.

A concern for the County Commission is the potential number of people relegated to the lawn of the courthouse as they await their time in court. “I want to minimize people on the porch,” said Presiding Commissioner Larry Miskel, R-Hermann, referring to the covered area on the south side leading into the building. “That is not conducive to social distancing,” he added.

Changes will be taking place for both courthouse employees and those coming to do business with the county:

• Everyone will enter the building through the south-side doors (Highway 100 side) and go through the screening process.

• Everyone will leave the building through the north- (river side) and east-side doors.

  Anyone leaving the building will be screened again before being allowed to re-enter.

• The courthouse will be closed for lunch from noon to 1 p.m. This move is being made for the benefit of the deputy sheriff conducting the screening. While some county departments’ employees were on a staggered lunch schedule — which allowed for the offices to remain open during the noon hour — all employees will have their lunch break at the same time and the courthouse will be locked during that time.

• Everyone entering the courthouse will be required to have a mask or a face covering.

As noted earlier by Lamke, employees might be permitted to remove their masks while working at their desk, subject to approval of their supervisors. But, Williams said, being outside the office is another matter. “I think we’re going to have to require employees to wear their masks while they’re outside their office,” he said.

Again, the guidelines for reopening the courtrooms are subject to change by the presiding judge; however, here is how the process would work as outlined in Williams’ discussion with the County Commission:

There will be a 10-person limit for the courtrooms. In the main courtroom, there will be about six court-related personnel, including a sheriff’s deputy serving as bailiff. It is recommended by Williams that only one defendant or plaintiff — and his or her attorney — be in the courtroom at one time. Normally, several defendants or plaintiff and their attorneys are sitting the courtroom audience awaiting their time before the judge.

With defendants relegated to outside the courthouse, their attorneys would be responsible for notifying them that their case was being taken up by the judge. Williams said it was not his deputies’ responsibility to track down defendants as their cases were about to be taken up. That is, he said, except for a defendant who does not have an attorney.

Attorneys and their clients should wear their masks in the courtroom and elsewhere in the courthouse. Williams said non-compliance with the mask requirement will not be tolerated. Anyone seen not wearing a mask will be warned once; a second non-compliance will result in the person being expelled from the courthouse.

“It’s a simple rule: You have to wear a mask,” Williams said. “If we have to tell you twice, there’s a problem,” he said.

The sheriff told the commissioners he expected to assign three deputies to the courthouse during days the courts are in session — one for screening, at least one as a bailiff and one for additional security, possibly for the crowd expected outside the courthouse. Even though his department is working shorthanded — at last report there were three vacancies on his staff — Williams said assigning the trio of deputies to courthouse duty should not affect coverage countywide by his agency.

“I don’t anticipate pulling anybody off the road,” Williams said. “We’ll make it work,” he added.

Miskel and Associate Commissioners Jerry Lairmore, R-Owensville, and Jim Holland, R-Hermann, say they don’t know exactly what to expect as the Circuit Court resumes business in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — only that there is large measure of uncertainty on all fronts.

“It’s going to be slow and arduous at that front door on a good day,” Miskel said. “There are a lot of what-ifs. We’ve got a contingency plan and we’ll modify it if necessary.”

Sheriff details plan

Williams released a 5-page document detailing the judge’s order and detailing in greater depth the restrictions and changes in policy.

Visitors will need to adapt, he said. The policy will be adjusted as conditions warrant, he added.

Among these restrictions is a plan to flow traffic up to the second-floor courtroom and back downstairs. Those entering from the south doors will go upstairs using the stairwell on the right (east).

“Individuals exiting the upper courtroom shall utilize the western staircase and then the northern exit door at the back of the courthouse,” the release from Williams noted. “There shall be no exceptions.”

Leaving the courtroom upstairs, visitors will use the staircase to their immediate left to go down the westerns set of stairs.

Several issues which are certain to raise concerns among the public include these restrictions as noted by Williams in the release.

• Those required to appear in court shall only be accompanied by their attorney, when applicable and shall not be accompanied by any family members, friends, etc.

• Excluding employees and officers of the court, individuals will be prohibited from entering the courthouse with personal items such as purses, bags, etc., unless there is a medical need for such an item. Car keys and court documents are permissible.

• The courthouse will open at 8 a.m. No employees will be granted admittance until then. The courthouse will be closed from 12 p.m. until 1p.m. (for employee lunch). No employees will be granted admittance during those hours.

For the complete release, see The Republican’s website at www.gasconadecountyrepublican.com.

(With additional reporting by Dave Marner of The Republican)

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