By Karen Stokes
Milwaukee Courthouse has reopened to the public, but expect some changes. The First Judicial District has been mostly shut down since spring.
The new normal at the courthouse will be defined by social distancing, face masks, lots of plexiglass and other safety measures.
“Right away from day one we had the benefit of public health experts guiding us,” said Chief Judge Mary Triggiano. “We were following the science. We wanted to make sure we were creating a culture of safety so that we’re not part of the problem in the spread of the virus.”
Triggiano became chief judge in February after Chief Judge Maxine White was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers to take a seat on The Court of Appeals.
Triggiano’s first duty as chief judge was to shut down the courts and send everybody home to stop the spread of the virus.
“When we sent everyone home, we started recovery planning. We shifted a lot of our courts to Zoom hearings, [and are] still doing that now. Last month, we opened seven criminal courts and one at children’s court. Last Monday, we opened two jury trial courtrooms and are working to deal with the backlog on jury trials that are pending in the criminal division,” said Triggiano.
“We never went completely down, we maintained a domestic violence injunction courtroom which still do hear cases in person,” Triggiano added. “We knew that domestic violence was potentially going to increase in our community.”
The safety precautions taken began with mandatory face masks in the courtroom, physical distancing protocols and hand sanitization. Additionally, all the courtrooms have been disinfected.
Plexiglass has been added as a barrier to help protect people when social distancing isn’t feasible. There are plexiglass booths in the jury box and surrounding the judges and the prosecutor’s tables as well as the court reporter. Everyone is blocked off from each other.
“About 4,500 people come into the downtown courthouse and the Vel Phillips Youth and Family Justice Center on Watertown Plank Road and there’s no way we want that many people coming into the courthouse during a pandemic. We’re triaging what we choose coming to the courthouse to make sure that we’re keeping the footprint as low as possible right now,” said Triggiano.
It’s important that jurors come and hear cases and perform their civic duty. There have been 250 to 300 speedy jury trials where individuals have been in custody for months waiting for their right for a jury trial.
“I would also say that the courts certainly bear some responsibility for creating a more racially equitable system,” Triggiano said. “Many of the people awaiting trial are people of color.”
Traffic court is mostly being done via Zoom. Letters have been sent out asking people if they wanted to resolve their traffic matter either by Zoom or by sending in a payment.
“If you’re not feeling well or have COVID symptoms, please don’t come to the courthouse. We care about everyone, the employees, the colleagues and the public,” Triggiano said.
“Jurors don’t come downtown if you’re feeling sick, we will allow you to defer your jury service. We’re trying to be as smart as possible.”