By Ray King

As city and county government buildings and offices begin to reopen after being shut down because of the COVID-19 Pandemic, district and circuit courts are following suit beginning Monday.

Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr., the administrative judge for the 11-West Judicial District which is Jefferson and Lincoln Counties said Wednesday that even though the courthouses were closed, judges were still working, but mostly out of sight.

He said that because of electronic fining, he and the other circuit judges in the district (Alex Guynn, Jodi Raines Dennis, Bill Benton. Leon Jameson, Earnest E. Brown Jr) can get cases sent to them from their staff.

“Sarah (Miller) may not be physically in the office but she can use her government laptop and check the things that are filed (in the circuit clerk’s office) and send them to me,” Wyatt said, adding that court managers for the other circuit judges are doing the same thing for their judges.

On Tuesday, Wyatt went to Little Rock and picked up P.P.E. (personal protection equipment) for all the judges in the district, which also includes District Judges Kim Bridgforth, John Kearney and Phillip Green who is the district judge in Lincoln County.

Because of state directives about social distancing, contacts with defendants, attorneys and others were limited and Wyatt said much of that contact took place remotely.

Wyatt also talked at length about jury trials which are currently on hold until at least the end of June because of a directive from the Supreme Court.

He said the high court has suggested looking into the possibility of renting school auditoriums or maybe the auditorium at the convention center or a gym but currently the schools are closed and the convention center has been basically shut down because there are no events and collections of the so-called hamburger tax have declined.

“I don’t know how willing they would be to open it up to the courts,” he said.

Wyatt said he felt comfortable in saying that he did not anticipate jury trials being done by video.

“That won’t work,” he said. But a bench trial is a possibility. You can take testimony by a video. A hearing, absolutely you can do by video but at trial, a lot of what you do as a judge is you observe. You listen and you observe, and you look at people’s body language and things along those lines and you can’t do that by video.”

Jury notifications are also on hold until the end of June, but Wyatt said there could be some difficulties when they start to get delivered again.