‘Very slow’ reopening of parish courthouse starts Monday

“I look for things to go very slowly next week,” Clerk of Court Louis Perret says of the Lafayette Parish Courthouse's reopening. Image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The gist: There won’t be any civil or criminal jury trials in the 15th Judicial District until at least July 1, but the Lafayette Parish Courthouse will reopen Monday in line with the state’s Phase 1 guidelines.

“I look for things to go very slowly next week,” Clerk of Court Louis Perret says. Cleanliness, ongoing sanitation and other safety measures will continue to be paramount as legal proceedings and other services return, he adds, explaining that the virus itself is likely to dictate whether most court activities can be fully restored in the coming weeks. Since mid-March, the courthouse has been operating with 30 employees spread out over multiple floors, with a daily sanitation routine in place and plexiglass safety shields erected for document transfers. To help stem the spread of coronavirus, virtually all trials and hearings were rescheduled; only emergency matters like child custody and protective orders and some criminal matters (adoptions resumed last week) have been held in person.

Perret expects life in the courthouse will never get back to pre-pandemic days, as the legal profession has quickly adapted to technology to stay safe and continue working. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that all of society, even seniors, seem to be embracing technology,” he observes.

What we still don’t know. How juries and grand juries will be selected, which can mean figuring out ways to handle up to 100 potential jurors at a time, remains up in the air. Perret and the judges are considering various options. “We’re still working through it,” Perret says, “but we are certain we can accomplish it and ensure the public’s safety.”

Chief Judge Marilyn Castle is hoping for additional guidance from the Louisiana Supreme Court as local courts get closer to resuming jury trials. She also says one option on the grand jury issue might be extending the service of the current grand jury, which was empaneled before the shutdown and has continued to meet. 

A Phase One emergency order distributed Wednesday by Castle lays out the limited reopening of courthouses in the judicial district, which also includes Vermilion and Acadia parishes, in line with guidelines from state and local governments, and orders from the state supreme court. 

There are lots of restrictions. Everyone entering the courthouse in these parishes must wear face masks or face coverings and be symptom-free. When entering the courtroom, they are required to use hand-sanitizer, which will be provided. Courtrooms and hallways are limited to 25 percent capacity and must have 6 feet of distancing. Both have already been marked for these restrictions, Castle notes. 

Only people with direct business are allowed in the courtrooms, and anyone else who wants to attend — including media — must contact the presiding judge for accommodations. But that will require some sort of system of adequate notification, as courtroom sizes vary. 

District Judge Jules Edwards says every effort will be made to accommodate media outlets in cases with high public interest, but he understands media will need better access to dockets. Adhering to the 25% capacity rule will present some challenges. “A courtroom can get full pretty quickly” with court staff, bailiffs, defendants and their attorneys, he says. “I’m interested in working out this press pool thing, trying to get ahead of this,” Edwards adds.

Judges’ dockets are made available on the clerk of court’s website to paid subscribers and can be accessed on computers at the courthouse, but they’re fluid and subject to ongoing changes, especially on the civil side. Both Edwards and Castle say they’re interested in figuring out a way to get updated dockets published online and free of charge to the general public. “Right now we’re trying to revamp our website,” Castle says. “That’s one of the things in the mix.” In the meantime, she says dockets will be posted outside of the courthouse (as well as inside) on the morning of trials. 

Among other important info in Castle’s emergency order (read the full text here): 

  • No one can go to a judge’s office without an appointment. 
  • Those who are not jailed and appearing for criminal matters scheduled beginning May 18 have to be on time and cannot have anyone, except for their legal counsel, with them. They should be prepared to wait outside before they are allowed to enter the courthouse. Hearings and bond reductions for incarcerated inmates will be conducted via telephone or video conference.
  • Civil hearings should be conducted via video and in scheduled time slots, Castle writes, “unless good cause can be shown.” 

“I feel that we are as well-prepared as we can be,” Castle says. “A lot of it will depend on the public being patient. We may have to make adjustments as we go along.”