Wisconsin Supreme Court justices allow lower courts to resume with virus controls

MADISON — The Wisconsin Supreme Court has decided to allow courts to resume in-person hearings and jury trials if they can come up with plans to protect participants and observers from the coronavirus.

The justices suspended in-person hearings and jury trials in March, ordering judges to continue trials to a date after May 22. Chief Justice Patience Roggensack convened a task force comprising judges, court clerks and attorneys in late April to examine how to resume in-person proceedings. The task force issued recommendations on May 15 that included calls for participants and spectators to wear face masks, observe social distancing standards and use hand sanitizers, and clerks to include a note in jury summons detailing the precautions the court has taken.

The court issued an order Friday evening that allows individual municipal and circuit courts to resume in-person proceedings, including jury trials, on a county-by-county basis if the courts prepare a plan to do so safely.

Each plan must mandate face masks for anyone present in a courtroom, although a judge can allow a witness to testify without one, spell out practices for cleaning frequently touched surfaces and require courthouse signs directing people to hand sanitizer.

The chief judge of each judicial administrative district must approve the plans before proceedings can resume. The chief judge's signature would invalidate the Supreme Court's suspensions and allow hearings and trial to resume in the local court that submitted the plan.

Justices Rebecca Bradley and Daniel Kelly disagreed with Friday's order. They wrote in a dissent that the Supreme Court should simply let its orders suspending in-person proceedings expire and leave running courtrooms up to individual judges.