DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Judicial Branch announced Friday that it would postpone jury trials in criminal cases until at least Sept. 14 and push back any in-person proceedings until July 13 or later because of the coronavirus threat.
Some hearings can begin earlier if courthouses meet recommended safety protocols, but the use of teleconferences and video conferences will continue to be encouraged.
Health officials have warned that crowded courtrooms could be venues to spread the virus to clerks, jurors, lawyers, witnesses, spectators and defendants.
“We know that people and families with pending cases are anxious to have their day in court, but we must first ensure that the public and court personnel have confidence that appropriate cautionary measures have been taken to protect their health when entering our courtrooms,” Chief Justice Susan Christensen said in a statement.
Christensen said trials cause Iowa residents to crowd into courtrooms for extended periods. “Those situations are contrary to social distancing and other public health directives,” she said.
Jury trials had previously been postponed until at least July 13, while in-person hearings had been expected to resume June 1.
The court system’s decision to extend its postponements comes as Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds pushes to reopen many other sectors of society despite the state’s rising COVID-19 death toll.
Defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial if they demand one. When the courts reopen, criminal trials are expected to be scheduled ahead of civil trials as the system works through a backlog.
Non-jury trials are expected to resume July 13. Over the following two months, the court system will work to prepare for jury trials, including obtaining adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and developing plans for screening employees and visitors and rules for social distancing, Christensen said.
With the exception of casinos, the governor has allowed almost all businesses to reopen or do so in the coming days. Lawmakers are also expected to reconvene next month.
Iowa’s coronavirus death toll had risen to 425 as of Friday afternoon.