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Judges address coronavirus, staffing needs during meeting with commissioners

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has strained the court system, judges told commissioners from Burke, Mountrail and Ward counties and state legislators on Wednesday morning.

Gary Lee, presiding judge of the North Central Judicial District, explained that the judicial district customarily holds the information session after an election to give newly elected commissioners an opportunity to learn more about how courts and law enforcement do business.

Lee explained that jury trials were put on hold until July due to the coronavirus, which caused a backlog of trials that the district is still trying to catch up on. It is a greater challenge now to hold jury trials because social distancing requirements mean two jury propective panels of jurors must be called during jury selection instead of one.

Lee told those assembled that masks are encouraged in the courtroom and hand sanitizer stations are available. However, despite the statewide mask mandate announced by Gov. Doug Burgum last Friday, only eight of about 16 judges, legislators and county commissioners gathered in the court room at the Ward County Courthouse for the hour long meeting consistently wore face masks. Those gathered were seated at a distance from one another in the room as recommended by health department guidelines. Judges in the North Central District Courts have also not been requiring that masks be worn inside court rooms and it is not uncommon to see some people in the audience at a court hearing sitting close to one another without wearing masks.

During the meeting on Wednesday morning, Lee said coronavirus has also caused delays in hearings on occasion. Police officers have been unavailable to testify at preliminary hearings because they have coronavirus or are required to be in quarantine because they are close contacts of someone who has had a positive test.

Judge Doug Mattson said it might be possible in the future for witnesses to testify at hearings via Zoom. One legislator remarked that hearings will be streamed online during the upcoming legislative session and some legislators will be participate in meetings via technology instead of being physically present due to rule changes.

Courts must remain open to address ongoing needs in the criminal and civil court systems, said Judge Lee.

“Crime didn’t slow down during the pandemic,” said Lee. “If anything, it may have increased.”

People who have been arrested must make an initial appearance before a judge soon after their arrest so they may hear their rights and have a bond set. In the civil system, judges must hear foster care cases and cases involving people with mental health or addiction issues.

Drug addiction is a serious problem as well that judges deal with each day. Police have said there have been more than 80 overdoses this year and 13 overdose deaths, compared with 23 overdoses and three overdose deaths in 2019.

Judge Lee said drug addiction can affect people of all ages, including people in their 60s who became addicted after being prescribed painkillers following a surgery.

Mountrail County Commissioner Joan Hollekim said that there have also been an increase in drug-related incidents in Mountrail County and she has heard that kids as young as grade schoolers have been addicted.

The Drug Court Program, which provides treatment and extended supervision to people with drug or alcohol addiction, has been expanded in the judicial district. There is a drug court program for adolescents and another one for adults. The Teen Drug Court Program has been expanded to Williston, said Judge Todd Cresap. An adult drug court program is now also available in Stanley.

Cresap said studies show that people who participate in Drug Court are more successful than those who do not, even if they do not succesfully complete the program.

All of the judges said there is a need for more treatment programs, particulary extended treatment, in the Minot area so people do not have to travel to other cities in the state or out of state for the treatment that they need.

The judges also told the legislators that they do continue to need one-to-one court staffing to help with the case load.The judges in the North Central Judicial District share one law clerk, said Lee, while he believes that the state supreme court justices have two apiece.

Judges said that they have made use of technology to increase efficiency and are being wise stewards of state funding.

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