Court responding to COVID-19 challenges

Chad Frey
The courtrooms at the Harvey County Courthouse have not changed much in the past two decades, but COVID-19 is forcing some changes.

Changes are coming to district courtrooms in the Harvey County Courthouse as responding to the COVID-19 pandemic will, in the eyes of the court, require technology updates.

“Due to restrictions placed upon all courts by COVID 19 guidelines, including mandates from the Kansas Supreme Court, the court must seek new and innovative ways to host all court proceedings,” Jennifer Foster, district court administrator, wrote in a memo to the Harvey County Commission.

Until now, one way the court has changed is to not host jury trials. However, that is not a sustainable, long-term solution.

“We have been able to accommodate (COVID-19) guidelines without spending much additional money, but resuming jury trials is very complex because of the large numbers of people involved and the many rights regarding jury trials,” Foster wrote. “We could potentially have an additional 75 to 100 persons in the courthouse just to report for jury duty. We must move those people through the courthouse in a safe manner.”

And how the court hosts those trials will need to change as well. Currently the jury boxes in each courtroom are not usable under social distancing guidelines. The galleries must be updated as well.

District Court No. 9 has requested $199,154.97 through the Harvey County Direct Aid Plan for a Virtual Court Project. The county was awarded several million in funds through the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas fund, funds that must be spent by Dec. 31 on COVID-19 related expenses under a direct aid plan created by the county and approved by the state.

If awarded, the funds requested by the court will lead to improvements in all three courtrooms that would allow the court to move to a more “virtual” mode. Budgeted expenses for North Courtroom are $68,433.11, South Courtroom $65,857.15, and Magistrate Courtroom $64,864.71. The application is set for a review by the county commission at its Sept. 22 meeting.

“We cannot allow jurors to sit in our jury boxes as they are at this time. We have to assure the public's right to view jury trials as well as the right of the defendant to see witnesses as they testify — and for jurors to be able to observe all involved while not appearing on camera,” Foster wrote. “That means that the project to resume jury trials encompasses audio, video, digital recording, video conferencing, live streaming and assisted listening, all with the goal of having the ability to communicate in multiple locations simultaneously while maintaining social distancing.”

The plan calls for multiple video cameras to be installed in each courtroom, along with monitors and sound equipment.

“The virtual court project requires removing current operating systems and installing all new technology in each courtroom providing the court the ability to host virtual court proceedings during the course of the pandemic and in the future,” Foster wrote. “Upon completion of the project, all courtrooms within the district will be uniform in nature.”