Some state courts to close, for now, to prevent the spread of COVID-19

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Connecticut's Chief Court Administrator announced Wednesday afternoon that only one courthouse per each of the state's 13 judicial districts will be open for priority matters beginning Thursday, as the state continues efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19.

As the state's number of confirmed cases of the virus continue to climb, Judge Patrick L. Carroll III said in a statement that he and Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson have decided to implement unprecedented measures to protect the public, attorneys, employees and judges.

Locally, that means the courthouse at 70 Huntington St. in New London will remain open, while the district's three other courthouses, Geographical Area 10 at 112 Broad St. in New London, Geographical Area 21 in Courthouse Square, Norwich, and the juvenile court in Waterford will be shuttered for now. All juvenile matters for the state will be heard in the Bridgeport and Hartford courthouses. The Supreme Court building in Hartford will remain open.

The branch's executive directors are working with employees to determine who will staff these locations and conduct all other vital functions such as information technology, human resources and payroll, said the statement from Judge Patrick L. Carroll III. All other staff will remain at home, and those whose jobs allow them to work at home will do so.

Local court staff said this week that supervisors have been seeking volunteers to continue manning the courts.

"These are extraordinary times and require extraordinary measures," said the statement from Judge Carroll. "Our overarching challenge throughout the crisis has been to balance the constitutional obligation of the courts to remain open with protecting the health and safety of every individual who enters a state courthouse. Ultimately, we have determined that the plan announced today is the best option to achieve this balance."

The state Judicial Branch last week suspended all civil and criminal trials for the next 30 days and said the courts would only be open for "Priority 1 business functions," including criminal and domestic violence arraignments, along with juvenile detention hearings, civil and criminal protective orders and urgent juvenile and family matters, including orders of temporary custody, termination of parental rights and domestic violence victim notification.

The reduction in court business resulted in the delay of jury selection in the triple murder trial of Sergio Correa, which was scheduled to begin Tuesday in New London. Jury selection is now slated for April 20.

At the usually busy Geographical Area 10 courthouse on Broad Street this week, the only business conducted on the record has been criminal arraignments: two on Monday, two on Tuesday, and one, a domestic violence case, on Wednesday.

Sean F. Kelly, supervisor of public defenders at G.A. 10, said he's troubled about defendants being held in prison on bond who expected to have their cases resolved only to have their court dates rescheduled for a later date.

"I know judicial is still trying to work through it," Kelly said. "We're trying to come up with creative solutions. If you know you have a sentence that was going to be imposed and the client will now be in longer than the sentence that was contemplated, you can rework the sentence, or at least attempt to."

One of the glitches, he explained, is that when someone is sentenced to a definitive period of incarceration, even if they already have served all their time, they are brought back to prison so that Department of Correction officials can apply the credit for time served. As the courts and prisons have attempted to reduce the number of people in and out of their facilities, only those who are expected to be released directly from the courthouse are being transported to court.

"Obviously, people have rights," Kelly said. "You've just got to get creative at this time."

With the reduction in court business this week, staff at G.A. 10 were thinking ahead to when the courts are fully opened again.

"We're doing all the day-to-day stuff that piles up and we usually do on the fly, because we know we're going to get slammed when we come back," said David J. Smith, supervisory assistant state's attorney.

The chief court administrator called on Judicial Branch employees to help their communities as the coronavirus pandemic develops.

"As we implement these extraordinary measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, I am simultaneously asking each Judicial Branch employee to consider what they might be able to do, safely, within their own communities to aid in the concerted effort to fight COVID-19: donate blood; call the local food bank or homeless shelter to determine what can be contributed; offer to shop for elderly or sick neighbors; or mobilize groups of Branch employees to donate coffee, doughnuts or pizza to the health care workers in our hospitals," said Carroll's statement. "There is much that we can and should do as the Judicial Branch community — I've seen them all do it countless times before."

k.florin@theday.com

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