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As COVID-19 Cases Drop, St. Louis-Area Courts Weigh Virtual Versus In-Person Hearings

An illustration showing Lady Justice with a mask over her face.
David Kovaluk
St Louis Public Radio
With COVID-19 cases dropping in most parts of Missouri, including St. Louis, presiding judges in the state's courts now have more flexibility in how to conduct business.

A new Missouri Supreme Court order is giving presiding judges more say over the details of court operations during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The order, which took effect June 15, eliminated the previous operating phases and instead asked the judges to consider the local status of the pandemic when deciding how to resume in-person hearings. Coronavirus cases are decreasing in much of the state, including the St. Louis region.

“Courts and judges continue to be encouraged, when appropriate, to utilize all available technologies — including teleconferencing and video conferencing,” the order said.

Michael Stelzer, the presiding judge in the 22nd Circuit, which covers the city of St. Louis, said contested hearings like trials are being held in person at the courthouse. But for now, simpler proceedings like status hearings are still virtual much of the time.

“We’re trying to get back to in person as soon as we can, but we don’t want to do it in a way that’s going to create safety issues, or cause some sort of an outbreak, or something like that,” he said.

Stelzer said he expects some judges to allow those hearings to continue virtually even after the pandemic officially ends.

“It’s a benefit to the attorneys in that they don’t need to drive in to do a 30-second appearance in front of the judge on some matter that can easily be handled remotely.”

Stelzer is leaving the decision about virtual hearings up to individual judges. Michael Burton, the presiding judge in the 21st Circuit in St. Louis County, is handling things a bit differently. In an order issued last week, Burton set specific dates for different kinds of proceedings to return in person. For example, bond hearings will be done at the courthouse starting today, while small claims will remain virtual until Sept. 7, unless the judge decides otherwise.

In St. Charles County, in-person proceedings resumed immediately after the order from the Supreme Court, but a spokeswoman said individual judges could still make the decision to hold hearings virtually.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.