In-person court to resume in May
Criminal defendants who are not in custody will start appearing in
Woodford Circuit Court in May, according to 14th Circuit judges Jeremy
Mattox and Brian Privett.
Motion hour dockets will be staggered to limit the number of people in a
courtroom, Privett said. He said in-custody defendants will continue
appearing remotely from jails via Zoom, which eliminates transportation
costs. “So it’ll be a combination of Zoom and in-person,” he added.
Mattox said out-of-custody defendants in his court will have the option
in May to appear via Zoom or in person. For a sentencing or revocation
hearing, he will require them to appear in person, he added.
Mattox said his court will return to in person without a Zoom option in
June. His docket will continue being conducted in 30-minute intervals to
reduce the number of people in his courtroom, he said.
“It’s easier to do it one way or another,” said Mattox. “And we get more
accomplished in person than via Zoom because people can actually sit
down and talk to their attorneys, meet with their attorneys. If there’s
paperwork to fill out, they can sit there (in the courtroom) and fill it
out. They can … talk to the attorney.” His frustrations with Zoom
include defendants not knowing how to un-mute and technical issues.
“Somebody’s trying to plead guilty and their connection keeps freezing.
It’s just frustrating. And then on my end if I mess up and it doesn’t
work on my end then it shuts the whole thing down, which has happened,”
said Mattox. Also, he said people treat court proceedings with more
respect and seriousness if they are in a courtroom with the judge.
Privett said he will continue using Zoom in his court for the
foreseeable future because it has been productive during motion hours.
However, during critical junctures of a case, he acknowledged he’d
rather see an attorney and a criminal defendant in person.
Privett said the “symbolic nature” of having someone in front of him in
the courtroom is important during arraignments, and for guilty pleas and
sentencings. “If you’re going to give a sentence that’s going to affect
somebody’s life,” he said, “…it’s important that they be there in person
and you look them in the face.”
Mattox said he also prefers seeing a person for sentencing. “If I’m
going to put someone in prison, I feel like I owe it to them to look
them in the eye …” he said.
With plans to begin jury trials in June, potential jurors will be asked
questions in smaller groups until a jury has been seated, Privett said.
Civil trials are being scheduled 14 months out, Privett said. He said
criminal defendants who are in custody will have trials first, but
trials for more serious charges will probably not be scheduled initially
because of the “kinks” that’ll need to be worked out.
“There are dozens of people who are sitting in jail waiting on their day
in court in our (three-county) circuit,” said Mattox. He said civil
trials aren’t being scheduled this calendar year, so those who are in
custody will have their day in court. He said victims involved in
criminal cases also want to see cases resolved.
The biggest differences during a trial will be a jury seated six-feet
apart from one another and everyone in the courtroom wearing a mask,
Privett said. And he said attorneys will be encouraged to present
evidence electronically when possible.
Because of space limitations in the courtroom and the need to maintain
“an open courthouse,” people will also be able to watch a trial via
Zoom, Privett said.
He said civil attorneys seem to prefer handling cases via Zoom because
they are balancing cases in multiple courts – and counties, which would
involve a lot of travel. Because it’s easier doing court one way or the
other, Mattox will continue doing his civil dockets on Zoom, he said.
From a personal perspective, Privett said he has missed seeing clerks
and bailiffs when he traveled from Bourbon County to courthouses in
Scott and Woodford counties.
“I think that everybody in a pandemic has missed out on interacting with
other people,” he said.
Privett also looks forward to seeing Drug Court participates and staff
in person again. That hasn’t been happening since March 2020, he said.
“May – we’re just trying to get to May at this point,” said Privett,
who’ll also celebrate a birthday in May. “… If we get back in person –
that’s much bigger than a birthday present.”
Mattox said there’s not a section in a judge’s “bench book,” that
explains how to conduct court in a pandemic. “We sort of made it up as
we went along,” he said.