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Jury trials in Lake County could be suspended in response to coronavirus concerns
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Jury trials in Lake County could be suspended in response to coronavirus concerns

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The judges of Lake Superior Court and Lake Circuit Court petitioned the Indiana Supreme Court on Friday to approve an emergency plan to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

If the high court approves the petition, all jury trials in Lake County would be suspended for at least a month.

If the COVID-19 crisis has subsided by April 17, jury trials may resume no earlier than May 4, according to the petition. The timing would allow for adequate notification of the potential jury pool.

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Lake County judges petitioned the Supreme Court under Administrative Rule 17, which allows the high court to approve changes to lower courts' normal practices because of widespread disease outbreak, natural disaster, civil disobedience and other circumstances that would require the closure of courts or inhibit litigants and courts from complying with statutory deadlines and rules of procedure.

If the Supreme Court approves the emergency petition, rules and procedures affecting time limits currently imposed for speedy trials in criminal and juvenile proceedings would be affected.

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Lake County judges also are requesting permission to limit spectators in the courtroom to provide adequate social distancing, relax rules for attorneys wanting to appear remotely for routine hearings, and require anyone with flu or flu-like symptoms or who may have or been exposed to COVID-19 to appear remotely or continue a nonroutine hearing.

According to the petition, a random sample of 533 recently summoned jurors showed about 25% of the jury pool is older than 60. Older people are considered to be more at-risk if they contract the virus.

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"The court finds that ordering a susceptible population to appear for jury service in this pandemic climate represents a failure of the judiciary to halt the spread of COVID-19," the petition states.

The judges wrote Lake County doesn't have adequate hygiene stations or supplies for the dozens of jurors requires for selection in civil and criminal trials.

Ordering people to gather in a group setting would go against recommendations issued by international and federal health experts, the petition says.

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"Jurors should not have to weigh compliance with a juror summons against possible contraction of COVID-19," the judges wrote.

Lake Juvenile Court would clear its dockets and conduct only detention and other essential hearings starting Monday. Only essential Juvenile Court staff would be required to work.

In a letter to staff, Lake Juvenile Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak wrote all out-of-state work travel would be suspended from Monday until April 6 and in-state travel would be approved on a case-by-case basis. All meetings with external stakeholders were to be canceled.

The Lake County Juvenile Court and Juvenile Detention Center will remain open for business, despite the safety measures, the judge wrote.

In Lake Criminal Court, a bailiff told at least three women who brought young children into the courtroom Friday morning to leave because they were in violation of the court's new policy to limit attendance to defendants, witnesses, attorneys or members of the press.

Judge Pro Tempore Michael Pagano waived the appearance of several defendants for routine pre-trial hearings, giving their lawyers new court dates in early May. Pagano said the policy was intended to reduce the number of people who have to enter court buildings for 30 days to minimize any contact that might result in the spread of coronavirus.

The petition to the Indiana Supreme Court was signed Friday by John Sedia, chief judge of Lake Superior Court, and Lake Circuit Judge Marissa McDermott.

Check back at nwi.com for updates to this developing story.

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Times correspondent Bill Dolan contributed to this report.

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