Empty courtroom - Judge's bench

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court has taken the historic step of ordering the state’s court system to mostly shut down from Monday, March 16, through April 10.

The emergency order, which was signed by Chief Justice John Minton but has not yet been announced, aims to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and "protect the health and safety of court employees, elected officials and the general public." WDRB News obtained the order from multiple sources. 

The order postpones all criminal and civil dockets except for "emergency matters." Among the exceptions are motions for bond by inmates, evidientary hearings in criminal cases and domestic violence hearings.

Any trials currently ongoing will be allowed to be completed, although the presiding judge has the authority to postpone. Everything else will be rescheduled.

The order also prevents anyone from entering a courthouse if they have visited and "high-risk countries" identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including China, Iran, South Korea and anywhere in Europe. Additionally, anyone who has been in contact with someone who has been to any of these countries is also prohibited from entering a courthouse.

People who have traveled to anywhere in the United States where "COVID-19 has sustained widespread community transmission" will also not be able to go into court buildings, according to the order. Signs will be posted at court buildings, including the Hall of Justice at 600 W. Jefferson St. and the Judicial Center next door, to inform people who have a fever, cough or are short of breath that they will not be allowed to enter. The order says that anyone who enters a courthouse in violation of these protocols shall be "denied entrance by a bailiff or court security officer."

Deputies will "discourage" those who can get in courthouses from congregating outside a court and "encourage social distancing" inside courtrooms. 

The order calls for all civil trials and hearings to be postponed and "reasonable attempts" to reschedule all criminal cases, unless a trial must be held under a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. If a court hearing or trial is held, attendance will be limited to attorneys, those involved in the case and any necessary witnesses, according to the order. 

Judges will be able to use telephone or video technology to hold necessary hearings, such as arraignments and mental health cases. Chief district and circuit court judges may implement additional restrictions as needed, the order says.

Attorneys are being asked to file e-file court motions. Louisville attorney Ted Shouse, a criminal defense attorney who handles cases throughout the state, said the order "perfectly balances the rights of a defendant and the rights of the public to know what goes on in court. It keep the criminal courts functioning in the current crisis."

It appears the media will only have access to what happens in a trial or necessary court hearing by requesting and paying for a copy of a video of the hearing.

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Digital Reporter

Jason Riley is a criminal justice reporter for WDRB.com. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after 14 years with The Courier-Journal. He graduated from Western Kentucky University. Jason can be reached at 502-585-0823 and jriley@wdrb.com.