Virtual court coming to Harvey County

Chad Frey
The Kansan

Judge Marilyn WIlder does not believe it is prudent for someone to drive more than eight hours to attend a five-minute hearing in Harvey County District Court.

“We routinely have people from other states in our courtroom. This morning I had a gentleman from Colorado for a first appearance,” Wilder said Sept. 22 during a county commission meeting. “... We are starting to use Zoom already because of COVID. We are being told that people will be demanding that they be able to appear in court electronically.”

That is why she, and Judge Joe Dickenson, appeared before the county commission Sept. 22 to support an application by District Court No. 9 for $199,154.97 through the Harvey County Direct Aid Plan for a Virtual Court Project.

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 primary reason behind moving to virtual courtrooms is to precipitate hosting of jury trials, which the court has not done in months due to COVID-19 guidelines.

“We do not need it for anything else,” Wilder said. “To conduct a jury trial under ... pandemic restrictions, this is what have come up with to do jury trials.”

It will allow for jury selection to be spread out a bit — prospective jurors can check in and wait in a different courtroom and watch the proceedings on monitors. Once a trail starts, jurors will sit in what is currently the court gallery — rather than the too small jury boxes.

The trial can then be streamed online for the public.

“To have a public trial, to make it public, we will have to stream it to make it public,” Dickenson said.

Both Wilder and Dickenson said the new equipment will have usefulness outside of jury trials and a COVID-19 response but that COVID-19 is the primary reason behind having the equipment installed.

On Tuesday, at the urging of District Court Judges Marilyn Wilder and Joe Dickenson, the Harvey County Commission approved a bid for audio/video and computer equipment for the three district courtrooms in the courthouse — and not the lowest bid given for the project.

The reason, according to Wilder, for accepting a bid that was about $60,000 more than the lower bid was the winning bid, from Hopps Sound of McPherson, included electrical work that is needed to make the system operational. The court received one other bid, but that bid was for equipment only.

Add to the consideration that Hopps performed similar work for the McPherson County courtrooms — in which Harvey County judges also practice, and the county was able to sign on the dotted line for the work.

Funds will come from Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas funding that the county is distributing during the next several weeks.

The county was awarded several million in SPARK funds, which 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.

In other business, the county commission:

• Learned the CARES committee updated last week to discuss guidelines and application guidelines.

• Learned that the Road and Bridge Department is looking at state funding for three different programs.

• Learned that a contract for the decontamination of N95 masks will expire Sept.. 30.

• Appointed Jerry Vetter to the Harvey County Parks Board.

• Approved the purchase of a tilt trailer for the Road and Bridge Department for $30,000.

• Hosted a hearing on solid waste fee delinquencies.