COVID-19 has impacted nearly every facet of society, and courts are no different. In Wisconsin, Circuit Courts, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court have largely continued operations, albeit in a modified fashion. For example, circuit courts have utilized Zoom Videoconferencing to conduct hearings in lieu of in-person hearings. The Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court have also utilized Zoom Videoconferencing to hold oral arguments on pending appellate cases. Many of these hearings and oral arguments have also been live-streamed on YouTube.
On May 22, 2020, the Wisconsin Supreme Court implemented an order allowing circuit courts to begin the resumption of in-person hearings and jury trials with limitations. Since then, courts have been slowly adapting, modifying, and changing procedures and developing safety protocols to assist in the return to full court operations. To keep up-to-date on the latest developments, the Wisconsin Court System website contains a helpful COVID-19 link to assist in keeping track of the latest COVID-19 related orders and procedural rules for all courts around the state. This includes links to orders from individual county circuit courts from around the state as well as orders from the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. The link also contains information regarding Chief Justice Patience Roggensack’s COVID-19 Task Force Report along with other pertinent COVID-19 legal and court related information for attorneys and parties.
As the pandemic continues, attorneys and parties are encouraged to check individual court websites for the most up-to-date and accurate information. Currently, some notable COVID-19 related court information as of July 31, 2020 includes:
Milwaukee County: Per the June 25, 2020 Order of Chief Judge Mary Triggiano, in-person hearings were authorized to begin as of June 29, 2020 in a phased manner, beginning with criminal proceedings. The order encourages all judges to continue using remote appearances. Further, via the July 17, 2020 Order of Chief Judge Triggiano, jury trials were approved to resume as of July 20, 2020 in a staged format, with limited courtrooms available for jury trials and criminal trials proceeding initially. Both orders contain lengthy safety protocols and procedures for court staff, attorneys, parties, and jurors
Waukesha County: Per the June 19, 2020 Order of Chief Judge Jennifer Dorrow, in-person hearings were authorized to begin as of June 22, 2020 with safety limitations, including on the number of individuals allowed in a courtroom. Additionally, via the July 2, 2020 Order of Chief Judge Dorrow, jury trials were allowed to resume as of July 7, 2020 with criminal trials, mental commitment proceedings, and temporary restraining orders taking precedence over civil trials. The orders encourage the use of Zoom Videoconferencing and the use of YouTube to broadcast proceedings when possible. The orders also contains the Waukesha County judiciary operational plan, which includes safety provisions and protocols for court staff, attorneys, parties, and jurors.
Dane County: Per the July 16, 2020 Order of Chief Judge Thomas Vale, in-person court proceedings were authorized to begin for limited case types, including criminal matters, mental commitments, juvenile procedures, and certain civil family cases and time-sensitive small claims hearings. However, the order also encourages the courts to use remote appearances whenever possible and requires remote hearings in small claims cases and matters before Court Commissioners. Importantly, Dane County has yet to authorize the resumption of any jury trials. The order also contains includes safety provisions and protocols for court staff, attorneys, parties, and jurors.
Brown County: Per the July 2, 2020 Order of Chief Judge James Morrison, in-person court proceedings were authorized to begin as of July 6, 2020. However, the order encourages judges to “conduct all appropriate hearings remotely” to assist in minimizing the number of people in the courthouse. In-person hearings also must be staggered with remote appearances to minimize the number of people in a courtroom. Jury trials can resume beginning on August 3, 2020. The order indicates that the county judges will work together to prioritize the order of jury trials. The order also includes safety provisions and protocols for court staff, attorneys, parties, and jurors.
Court of Appeals/Supreme Court: Per the May 22, 2020 of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, previous appellate orders allowing for the filings of notices of appearance, motions, and responses to motions electronically were extended until further notice. The Clerk of Court’s office remains open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each business day to accept filings, but parties are encouraged to file by mail. As such, a previous order adopting the “mailbox rule” for the filing of documents was also extended until further notice. Finally, the order extended the ability for court reporters to administer oaths from remote video until further notice.