Courts begin gradual reopening following COVID-19 closure

  • Clerks for the Franklin County Superior Court, Western Housing Court and Greenfield District Court work at the Franklin County Justice Center on Monday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Though the Franklin County Justice Center in Greenfield began a gradual reopening on Monday, jury trials are still not being held. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Some of the in-person services at the Franklin County Justice Center in Greenfield have resumed following pandemic-related closures. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/13/2020 6:25:29 PM

Like the others across the state, the courthouses of the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office began a “gradual reopening” on Monday, though some of the practices adopted due to the COVID-19 pandemic will remain intact for the time being.

The courts have started conducting more matters in person as opposed to through virtual means, according to First Assistant District Attorney Steve Gagne. He said proceedings like arraignments of new cases, guilty pleas and evidentiary hearings such as dangerousness hearings no longer needed to be held remotely. However, Gagne said the more routine proceedings, such as pretrial conferences, will still be held remotely.

“(Courthouses) have been slightly reopened,” Gagne said. “They’re more open now than they have been for the past few months.”

Court matters had been conducted via video conferencing for a few months after Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency to combat the spread of COVID-19.

According to spokesperson Mary Carey, the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office’s territory consists of the Hampshire and Franklin county superior and district courts as well as Orange and Eastern Hampshire (Belchertown) district courts and the Franklin/Hampshire Juvenile Court, which has locations in Greenfield, Orange, Belchertown and Hadley.

Gagne said everyone who enters one of the courthouses is required to wear a face mask and submit to a temperature check to determine if they are sick. He said they will also have to adhere to “some semblance of social distancing” to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Jury trials, which Gagne said are how a “good portion, though not the majority, of cases get resolved,” are still not being held. According to the state’s website, jury trials in both criminal and civil cases continue to be postponed to a date no earlier than Sept. 8. Gagne noted that jury selection would be especially tricky because it takes 50 to 100 potential jurors to select a 12-person pool.

As for staff members, Gagne said 30 to 40 percent of them are going to the courthouses and the rest are working remotely. However, he said, one or two district attorneys are reporting each day to the district courts in the two counties. He said the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office has adopted the philosophy of operating the court’s core functions with the bare minimum number of staff members working out of the courthouses.

Gagne said employee morale is as good as it can be during these unprecedented times. He said most staff members miss the camaraderie of the workplace.

“Everybody’s been in the same boat and we’re all rowing together,” he said.

He said he is confident in the state’s decision and ability to reopen in a phased way.

“I think the state, as a whole, is wise to take things slowly,” Gagne said. “I think Massachusetts has been among the national leaders in doing it right. Inching our way into the water, I think it’s the right way.”

For more information about visiting a courthouse, visit bit.ly/3esgZ8g.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.




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