Keeping Cases Moving Even When a Pandemic (Mostly) Closes the Rural Courts

By the Hon. Nancy Porter, Fourth Judicial District Court, Dept. 1

In mid-March, many departments of Elko County government were closed to protect the citizens of Elko County from effects related to the coronavirus pandemic. The district court, however, remained open and continued to hear cases that were deemed critical. The government closures were a prudent move, even though the pandemic and closures presented challenges for judges, attorneys and court staff needing to conduct normal courthouse operations. The unique situation also posed questions about infringing on citizens’ rights and about how we could continue to do our jobs while keeping people safe.

As a judge working in a rural courthouse that’s normally accessible to the public, I manage an environment where criminal defendants – some of whom have been housed in very close quarters where spread of disease is a very real possibility – must interact with law enforcement officers, court staff, attorneys, jurors and victims. Judges are tasked with keeping all these disparate groups of people safe and, during this pandemic, protected from the novel coronavirus. Social distancing, while recommended, is not feasible in many of the circumstances in which we operate every day.

So how do we balance defendants’ rights, guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which ensures “a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury,” with our need to keep everyone, including the defendants, safe? How do we make sure all litigants receive due process, as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment? Even in civil cases, such as those involving guardianships that protect the elderly and young children, our most vulnerable citizens, we must be mindful of safeguarding everyone’s health. How do we resolve enough cases, including those that are not necessarily urgent, such as probate or personal injury cases, to prevent an overwhelming backlog?

Modern technology has helped somewhat. Using teleconference and live-streaming technologies, we’ve been able to conduct some necessary operations. Of course, budget constraints are always an issue. Thanks to a grant that I was awarded by the Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts, new video technology is currently being installed in my courtroom. I’ve also written two administrative orders regarding district court procedures during this pandemic, which were signed by Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice Kristina Pickering, Judge Al Kacin, and me. Judge Kacin and I are currently working on a plan to safely resume jury trials.

Through the National Judicial College, my colleagues and I have learned much, and very quickly, about the role of judges during a pandemic. We have been able to conduct some of the pressing business of our courts, albeit in a form that would have been unrecognizable just a few months ago. I have conducted many arraignments, sentencings and probation violation hearings by interactive video with criminal defendants who are in jail. I have heard several civil cases by phone or video CourtCall. I have conducted my monthly hearings for my felony DUI treatment court by Zoom, the now-ubiquitous teleconference software. I’ve even managed to finalize some adoptions via Zoom, making it possible for children to join families permanently, certainly a source of joy during these turbulent times.

Things are changing practically by the hour, so we will continue to adapt. Governor Sisolak announced on June 15, 2020, that Nevada is extending Phase 2 of the state’s “reopening” and will not be moving into Phase 3 because there has been a steady uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Even though the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 have remained very low in rural Nevada, including Elko County, the situation is still something my colleagues and I need to consider as we work toward resuming normal court operations. In the meantime, we’re doing our best to operate within reasonable parameters that keep courthouse staff, the public and the defendants safe.

Note: A version of this article was published in the Elko Daily Free Press in May.