COVID-19 and CH Municipal Court
We have all had to adjust and re-examine how best to carry out our everyday activities this past year. This public health emergency has also impacted Ohio courts, including Cleveland Heights Municipal Court (CHMC). There have been many challenges, but CHMC has adapted and responded to the COVID-19 crisis. Our focus has been on protecting the health of the staff and all those who enter the courthouse, while serving our vital purpose of administrating justice without denial or delay.
Shortly after Gov. DeWine first declared a state of emergency, I issued a temporary order suspending nearly all in-person hearings, including arraignments, criminal and traffic trials, and evictions.
Before the pandemic, I changed the bond so that almost all non-violent misdemeanors received personal bonds. I have since modified the court’s non-monetary personal bond schedule to include all non-violent felonies of the 4th and 5th degrees. In addition, I suspended all warrants that, at their inception, would have a personal bond under the modified schedule.
Although the number of case filings decreased significantly (CHMC ended the year down more than 30 percent from the year prior), the work of the court never stopped; in fact, our workload increased. The staff and I had to re-think almost every process we had in place.
We acquired supplies of masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, which were initially in short supply. The halls, waiting areas, and courtrooms were marked to ensure social distancing, and signage was placed throughout, noting that masks were required. Plexiglas barriers, paid for through CARES Act funding, were installed at the check-in station and in the courtrooms. We obtained a $93,000 grant from the Supreme Court of Ohio to upgrade our video-conferencing capabilities in the jail, probation department, and courtroom. We updated and increased the number of online forms available to the general public, and are in the process of switching vendors to make the online payment of fines and costs more efficient and less costly to defendants.
Even while I halted in-person hearings temporarily, we found ways to continue to adjudicate cases. For example, before the pandemic, criminal and traffic pre-trials were conducted with attorneys and defendants appearing in-person. Now, those pre-trials are conducted via telephone. Similarly, whenever possible, our updated video-conferencing equipment is put to use. Most plea changes and sentencings are now conducted remotely.
Though it is difficult to see this pandemic as any sort of positive, these are examples of changes for the better. No longer are attorneys and parties spending time waiting in the courthouse for their case to be called, and the defendant does not need to take time off from work to attend his or her hearing.
With all of this in place, in the middle of June, the court began thoughtfully increasing the number of in-person hearings. To avoid large numbers of litigants at any one time, we have staggered our docket times. We enforce appropriate public health guidelines, including requiring social distancing and face coverings.
I cannot say enough good things about the staff here at the court, who have tirelessly and creatively taken on the unique challenges of fulfilling their duties. Throughout all of this, the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court has continued, and will continue, to administer justice and serve this community, even if that means doing so through a mask, separated by Plexiglas.
J.J. Costello is a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident, and judge of the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court.