Justices extend trial court relief through May 17, require transition plans by May 15

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The Indiana Supreme Court is extending through May 17 the previously approved emergency relief orders issued to trial courts due to COVID-19. Justices are also setting a May 15 deadline for courts to submit transition plans for expanded operations.

The high court on Friday issued an order further extending all Administrative Rule 17 relief previously granted to trial courts after observing that the public health emergency is still ongoing. Even so, the order notes it is “prudent for courts to begin developing plans for gradually expanding operations as conditions permit.”

“The exact date on which courts will be authorized to begin this transition will be conditions-driven and follow recommendations of the Executive Branch, including the Indiana State Department of Health, as well as the Court’s own review. Should conditions not improve or worsen, this date may continue to be extended. The critical question to begin addressing now is how to transition — not when,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote in the Friday order.

All orders granting emergency relief to trial courts under Administrative Rule 17 are extended through May 17, including but not limited to the tolling of time limits; authority to continue jury trials; authority to review county-jail and direct placement community correction sentences of non-violent inmates and juveniles;  and prohibition on issuing new writs of attachment, civil bench warrants or body attachments, and staying any such writs or warrants not yet served.

Absent further order from the Supreme Court, trial courts should plan to begin expanding operations beginning May 18, the order says.

In response to transition efforts, a task force has been established to develop guiding principles on how to safely and responsibly expand operations in Indiana’s courts.

Chaired by Clark Superior Judge Vicki Carmichael, president of the Indiana Judges’ Association, the task force includes judicial officers from across the state and staff from the Office of Judicial Administration. The task force will also invite input from state-level justice system partners such as the Indiana State Bar Association, prosecutors, public defenders, sheriffs and others. Input from trial court judges is also welcome.

Additionally, Rush and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Administrative Officer Justin Forkner are working regionally with their counterparts in surrounding states to receive national best practices from the National Center for State Courts. Input is being provided to the task force, and guidance from that group will be forthcoming, the order says.

All deadlines for trial courts to resume jury trials or submit status reports under previous Administrative Rule 17 orders for trial courts are vacated. Instead, courts shall do the following:

  • Coordinate with county emergency and public health authorities to ensure local health conditions and facility readiness are appropriate for gradually expanding judicial proceedings;
  • Convene a group of local justice system partners, including without limitation the county clerk, sheriff, private practitioners, prosecutor, child services and criminal defense counsel, to collaborate on a safe and responsible approach to expanding operations; and
  • Not resume jury trials until at least June 1, 2020, without prior approval from the Supreme Court. Courts seeking approval to hold a jury trial before then must petition the high court and show that (a) the matter is uniquely essential and warrants an earlier jury trial setting; (b) local health authorities are aware of the proposed trial setting; (c) local health conditions are appropriate to hold a jury trial; (d) the parties have consented in writing to holding an earlier jury trial; and (e) the jury trial will be held in compliance with all health and safety precautions directed by those local health authorities.

Trial courts are also ordered to develop transition plans for expanded operations and submit those plans for the high court’s approval no later than May 15.

The Supreme Court will issue specific guidance by future order, but trial courts’ plans should generally include proposed timelines for resuming normal staffing and loosening restrictions on spectators in courtrooms, plans for continuing or expanding remote hearings, and processes to determine whether conditions permit courts to start resuming jury trials.

Public health considerations will largely determine these timelines, and trial courts will therefore be afforded “all reasonable flexibility in decisions to maintain limitations on operations, in-person access to proceedings, and the ability to resume jury trials,” the order says.

“In all other respects except as set forth above, existing orders granting emergency relief under Administrative Rule 17 remain in full force and effect. In light of the extension granted by this order, any individual petitions to extend emergency relief beyond May 4 are, to the extent not addressed by this order, denied as moot,” the order concludes.

Courts in all 92 counties are currently operating under Administrative Rule 17 emergency plans.

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