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It Was Business As Usual At Louisville's Courthouse, But Not For Long

coronavirus COVID hand sanitizer
Hand sanitizer at the Louisville courthouse

Terri Burton didn’t want to go to court.

She was worried about the spreading coronavirus, and didn't want to catch the COVID-19 disease. But missing court was too risky. 

Burton, 48, was facing eviction. If she didn’t show Thursday morning, a judge would have likely signed the order, and she’d be forced to vacate her home.

“I didn’t have a choice,” she said.

For many, a missed court date carries serious consequences. And many were showing up to face the judge even as the coronavirus pandemic spurred cancellations across the country. 

But come Monday, courts will also be cancelled, except for emergency matters, domestic violence hearings and evidentiary hearings in criminal cases, according to an order signed Thursday by Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr.

Civil proceedings will be postponed and "reasonable attempts" will be made to reschedule criminal proceedings, according to the order that will be made public Friday.

Judges are encouraged to use telephonic or video technology for all necessary hearings, such as arraignments and mental health hearings, according to the order.

People who have visited China, Iran, South Korea, any European countries or other "high-risk" countries identified by Centers for Disease Control in previous 14 days are advised to not enter any courthouse in Kentucky, per the order.

In Louisville, about 10,000 people filter into the Louis D. Brandeis Hall of Justice and Jefferson County Judicial Center every day. Jugs of hand sanitizer could be found throughout the building Thursday, some empty and some not. Cans of disinfectant spray are perched behind clerk’s desks. Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputies posted near entryways wear black rubber gloves. 

Until the cancellations were in effect, defendants who have attorneys were encouraged to allow their counsel to follow the procedure to get a hearing rescheduled, and those without lawyers should call the court and “explain your situation and seek direction,” according to the state’s website.

Minton's order states "reasonable attempts shall be made to reschedule all criminal trials, subject to a defendant's right to a speedy trial." Other statutorily required hearings, like small claims, eviction, juvenile, probate, traffic and guardianship cases will be continued, per the order.

Damon Preston, the state's Public Advocate, said on Twitter Thursday evening that people incarcerated on cash bail "should be released immediately."

"We're discussing our options. Doing nothing for the next month is not one of those," he said.

Cancelling court can have far-reaching ripple effects. Defendants’ cases get delayed — some defendants would remain incarcerated while they await judgment, and justice for victims would be delayed. Cases would stall. But non-violent cases may be resolved quickly in the coming weeks, according to Chief Circuit Judge Angela McCormick Bisig.

“This is a public health issue,” Bisig said. “We’re just trying to be sensitive … we are going to try to do the best we can.”

Jeff Cooke, a spokesperson for the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney, said prosecutors have been following guidelines from the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies. He said prosecutors will continue to make court appearances as they are scheduled.

The greatest concern, he said, is how a lengthy closure would impact defendants in custody.

“The courts will have to address how to deal with those cases and our office will respond accordingly,” he said.

Representatives of the Jefferson County Attorney’s office and the Department of Public Advocacy did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

For Burton, who was already trying to figure out where she would live if she was evicted Thursday, the risk of getting sick on top of that was too great. She thought courts should have been closed earlier.

“It’s absurd,” she said. “People have been exposed and you don’t know who they are.”

Burton left the courthouse Thursday with a hint of hope. She wasn’t evicted; it turned out that she and her landlord had a misunderstanding. The judge dismissed her case.

Linda Reed wasn’t so lucky. She walked slowly from her seat to face the judge. She used a cane and spoke softly. 

Reed, 58, has been battling an illness and missed some work. She fell behind on rent, and she couldn’t make the payments her landlord demanded. 

“Just been getting sick,” she said. “Sometimes I’m okay and sometimes I'm not.”

The judge encouraged her to try and work out a deal with her landlord, but she signed the eviction order anyway. 

Reed walked out of the courtroom with her daughter and 8-month-old grandson. She doesn’t drive and her daughter, Veronica Reed, gave her a ride.

She worries about her mother, especially as a pandemic rages. And at the courthouse, “gunk,” she said, is everywhere.

“She’s already sick,” Veronica Reed said. “This is something that could have been postponed, until there is a better situation.”

Jacob Ryan is an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.