Though regional legal professionals have become more adept at handling remote hearings brought on by COVID-19, a state pause on criminal jury trials until at least March will likely leave a backlog well after the heavily burdened court systems returns to normal following the pandemic.
Rice County Attorney John Fossum noted there are more than 200 jury trials the county’s court administration office is working to reschedule. He noted that in most instances, six or seven jury trials are scheduled on a weekly basis but only one or two make it that far without a settlement being reached. Still, he anticipates a long-term backlog due to the pandemic.
“It’s always a moving target, and more cases come in all the time,” he said.
“It’s going to be a larger than normal backlog for some time.”
Prosecutors and defense attorneys both say a prolonged timeframe can harm their cases by shifting their focus to multiple legal files at once. Defendants can feel the burden of a court case for a longer time, and victims have to live with the realization that the alleged perpetrator has yet to be punished.
Fossum said Rice County could bring in judges from other counties or have retired judges work temporarily to ease that backlog, but doing so doesn’t negate the limits on space. The county has four courtrooms, all too small to accommodate a jury trial with social distancing. Space in the county office building next to the courthouse converted to a temporary courtroom can again be used when the court system reopens, giving the county additional space. But it still has only three judges chambered in Faribault.
Despite those limitations, Fossum, who is in his seventh year as county attorney, said the court system is just as busy as ever. The Rice County Attorney’s Office has had nearly as many criminal vehicular homicide cases in September and December — two — than in the rest of Fossum’s tenure. He attributes that to more people driving at a higher speeds, fearing the legal consequences, and an increase in drug and alcohol use during the pandemic.
‘We’ve learned a lot’
Steele County Court Administrator Robin Hoesley said the county’s focus since the start of the pandemic has been keeping the courts open and accessible while prioritizing safety, an approach she acknowledged has been “a delicate balance.” She noted the county has worked with additional temporary staff who are being utilized to be Zoom hosts, adding she was fortunate to not have vacancies following a hiring freeze instituted following the onset of the pandemic. That pause has since been lifted, allowing staff to fill open positions.
Court administration staff is now sending notices to those involved with court cases that include Zoom meeting information, a departure from what traditionally had been an in-person process.
“We’re doing our best to stay on top of the work and keep the system going,” Hoesley said.
She acknowledged that “it’s really almost impossible” to know how long court restrictions will last due to ongoing uncertainty around the pandemic. In March, 40 jury trials are scheduled in Steele County. That number drops to 29 in April, 30 in May and nine in June. Hoesley also anticipates that a number of those cases will likely be resolved before a jury trial begins.
Once Rice County court administrators realized they couldn’t hold traditional in-person jury trials, they worked with county leaders to create a the fifth courtroom. That approach proved fruitful until November, when in-person courts were again shut down, a measure health officials said were needed to prevent the spread of the virus. The courts won’t open again until at least March 15. Even when jury trials were allowed in Rice County, there were a couple cases where the proceedings were delayed due to someone being exposed to the virus. In one case, a mistrial was declared.
Court Administrator Lisa Kuhlman said Rice County District Court had “a considerable amount of backlog” immediately following the onset of the first state shutdown. However, since then, that backlog has been reduced to mainly just in-person jury trials until at least March 15, unless the defendant awaiting trial is in custody or is seeking a speedy process, or, in some instances, the type of criminal charges a person faces. All other hearings have been rescheduled.
Online hearings are reportedly becoming easier to administer. To Kuhlman, county administrators have “done a tremendous job of adapting to that.”
Kuhlman said online meetings have reduced the number of failures to appear amongst defendants, lessened transportation challenges and increased the number of people appearing for their hearings.
“It’s going actually better than expected,” she said. “At first there was a lot to learn.”
Even after the pandemic subsides, she anticipates Rice County District Court will continue to offer online hearings in some instances, like civil and family cases and those with long travel times for relatively short hearings.
In Waseca County, a one-judge county where online court hearings are now also the norm, Court Administrator Shannon Asselin also said the court system no longer has a backlog other than for criminal/civil trials, a development she said could be possible due to the relatively small size of the county and lack of jury trials. Court administration has created a self-help center for clients to use the remote hearing system.
“We’ve been able to meet this challenge too because we’ve had the help of our justice partners,” Asselin said.
‘It’s not ideal’
Though Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh believes remote hearings brought on by the pandemic are “not ideal,” including one recent instance when a phone died and caused a one-day delay in a court hearing, he noted there isn’t a major backlog other than cases set for jury trials. He noted in the initial stages of the pandemic, the court system couldn’t process the regular number of cases while undertaking exclusively online hearings. However, McIntosh noted participants have adapted.
Still, McIntosh, a self-described “creature of habit,” said online hearings have resulted in the loss of some non-verbal aspects of in-person court hearings. Also, waiting times before court appearances can give lawyers the chance to communicate with each other. The court system has hired an online moderator to help with technological glitches.
‘The court moves at its own pace’
Faribault-based lawyer John Hamer immediately thought remote court hearings would be “a big problem,” last March. Since then, Hamer has noticed the changes have forced him to work more outside of the courtroom/courthouse setting. He said handling business over the phone and via electronic filing has proven to be more efficient.
The court system has undergone “a pretty broad adaptation” to utilize technology during hearings. Because of that adaptation, Hamer also expects some of the technological components to be used once the pandemic ends. He said courts are still reluctant to call juries for non-criminal cases because of the continuing pandemic, causing a backlog to develop. To him, the court system should have adopted the changes COVID-19 eventually wrought before last spring, adding that doing so might have reduced any backlogs and saved some law firms that have shuttered over the last 11 months.
Hamer suggested court administrators consider hiring interim judges to handle remote cases and enable flexibility to reduce the burden the pandemic has brought on the justice system.
In noting the unprecedented levels of stress many Americans have felt during the pandemic, Hamer said he has stressed to his clients that despite the anxiety posed by seemingly never-ending cases, they can rely on him to shoulder the burden of the system.
“The court moves at its own pace,” he said of what he tells his clients.
Steele County Judge Karen Duncan said the pandemic has made work harder for staff. Initially, case clearance rates were initially in the 30% range, but that has since more than doubled.
Duncan, who was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton in March 2013, says some find online difficult to manage while others have an easier time.
Duncan has found herself spending more time on administrative work instead of focusing on hearing cases, conducting research and drafting orders. That’s not true for everyone. Fellow judges have told her that they have lost sleep and are also spending more time on the administrative/technical aspects of the position.
However, she said remote hearings are having some benefits. Anecdotally speaking, she said more people who are not directly involved in the trial now feel more comfortable listening into hearings because of the elimination of travel time and ease in doing so. Still, Steele County courtrooms are open if visitors wear masks.
Two crucial rural broadband projects backed by the Rice County Board of Commissioners were among those funded last week through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Border to Border broadband grant program.
In total, 39 projects were funded across the state and will expand internet access to 6,922 businesses, homes, and community anchor institutions statewide. More than $20 million in state investment will be matched by more than $30 million in private dollars.
The investment is much needed, given the state’s goal of achieving universal access to high speed internet by next year, with download speeds of at least 25mbps per second and upload speeds of at least 3mbps per second. According to DEED’s own figures, Minnesota remained well short of its universal broadband goal, at least as of October. According to numbers from Connected Nation, a tech nonprofit, about 7.5% of households do not have internet that meets the state’s 2022 standards.
While meeting even the 2022 standards would be a major achievement, DEED Commissioner Steve Grove emphasized that for many, download speeds of at least 25 mbps per second and upload speeds of at least 3mbps per second are deeply inadequate. However, the state remains more than 12% short of its more robust 2026 goal, which seeks to bring internet with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second to every household and business.
The larger of two local projects funded is spearheaded by Nuvera, a Prior Lake-based service provider. It will serve 103 unserved and 178 underserved locations in Wheatland and Webster townships in Rice County, as well as portions of Dakota and Scott counties.
One hundred and six of those homes will be in Rice County, which extended $200,000 in CARES Act dollars to the project in October. In total, the $1.2 million project will be funded about on third by DEED and two thirds by local match dollars.
Blue Earth-based service provider BEVCOMM received a bit over $200,000 for its roughly $525,000 project, which will serve approximately 14 unserved and 94 underserved locations in portions of Rice, Waseca, and Steele counties. That project is backed by Rice County’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which extended a $15,000 zero interest loan to the company in September.
In addition, the county sent a letter of support for the project to DEED.
County Administrator Sara Folsted said she was surprised to see both projects funded. While both were certainly worthy, she noted that only about half of all project applications are approved — and Rice County has often been overlooked in favor of even more “needy” areas.
“We’ve tried over a number of years to get access to funding, and it hasn’t always been that successful,” she said. “To have two projects get funded this year is really amazing, and shows the momentum we’ve had in achieving access.”
As Grove noted, one factor helping projects like Rice County’s may have been that proposals covering areas already included under the federal government’s recently announced Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grants were not eligible for consideration. That’s a point of frustration for Nathan Zacharias and other members of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition. Zacharias, a lobbyist with the MRBC, noted that it could take until 2027 for some projects to pan out.
“It’s exciting that the federal government is investing this much, and exciting that this company could bring fiber to home, but it will take up to six years,” he said. “That’s incredible to the coalition, that we would make somebody wait that long to get internet.”
Zacharias noted that in many cases, areas included in the RDOF grant already had “shovel ready” projects ready to go through the state grant process. Those projects are on hold as the Federal Communications Commission completes the process of finalizing RDOF grants.
Achieving the goal
While the state may be 85% of the way toward the more robust goal, Grove noted that completing the last portion will be the most difficult and most expensive. However, he said that the commitment is there to achieve that goal.
““This is very much a partnership of the public and private sectors wanting to get this done,” Grove said. “The demand for this program is huge. We are by no means done with this journey.”
The pandemic has only made it more crucial for the state to meet its broadband goals. From telecommuting to telemedicine to online learning, people are utilizing the internet to access services and opportunities at an unprecedented rate.
Before the pandemic hit, only about one in six Americans worked remotely even part of the time. At the pandemic’s peak, that exploded to about half of all Americans according to the Brookings Institute, though that has gone down since. Similarly, schools have relied heavily over the last year on online learning to keep students learning. However, the model has disadvantaged both rural students unable to access the internet and students from families too poor to afford it.
Perhaps the most dramatic shifts took place in the field of healthcare. For years, care providers had resisted any shift away from in-person appointments — but many of those same providers abruptly began providing much of their care through telemedicine.
“The pandemic this past year has made it crystal clear that fast, reliable broadband access is critical for people living in greater Minnesota – for everything from education and health care to business operations and telecommuting,” noted Gov. Tim Walz in a press release.
In Minnesota, nearly all of the RDOF grants were awarded to one company, LTD Broadband. If LTD is able to complete the awarded projects, it would net 100,000 new customers in Minnesota alone and enter into a dizzying array of new markets.
LTD’s long form application, where it will provide much more detailed plans, isn’t even due to the FCC until Feb. 15. However, some advocates are already raising questions as to whether the company will be able to achieve its huge promises.
While LTD currently provides broadband service throughout much of the upper Midwest, it does so through fixed wireless through the air, not fiber optic. It brings limited experience completing fiber-optic installations, which has proven challenging even for experienced providers like CenturyLink and Frontier Communications.
“The reason why rural Minnesota are skeptical of this is they’ve seen several rounds that didn’t bring them real service,” Zacharias said.
The Northfield School Board is considering three possible names for Sibley Elementary after deciding last October to disassociate itself from the school’s controversial namesake.
The board is expected to issue a final name-change recommendation for Sibley during the Feb. 22 meeting.
• Maple Hill Elementary, a name signifying a well-known sledding hill in the area.
• Maple Hills Elementary, an ode to a neighborhood south of the school.
• Spring Creek Elementary, a nod to a neighborhood east of the school.
The board finalized a policy change in October that will rename Sibley and Longfellow schools as part of a ban on naming district facilities after individuals. The policy required site names to illustrate their role within the district.
During a Monday, Feb. 8 meeting, the School Board renamed Longfellow to Northfield School District Office and Area Learning Center.
“There were 11 submissions with only one meeting the board policy criteria,” Superintendent Matt Hillmann noted of the Longfellow submissions.
Sibley was considered the more controversial name of the two. The first Minnesota governor, Henry Hastings Sibley played a role in the trial and execution of 38 Dakota Indians following the 1862 war in southern Minnesota. Longfellow is named after the legendary poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Prior to the Feb. 8 meeting, a vast majority of the 10 community members who submitted comments called on the school board to include a Wahpekute translation of the new school names in recognition of the Native American origins of the area. They said the translation would be in line with the land acknowledgement statement the city adopted last year.
School Board members Amy Goerwitz and Claudia Gonzalez-George said they agreed.
“It would be great to have that historical connection to the Wahpekute Indians,” Goerwitz added.
Hillmann said though a couple community members expressed an interest in providing the translation during the feedback process, doing so wasn’t listed as a top priority by the community.
Northfield Middle School social studies teacher Earl Weinmann and two of his former students are working to erect a historical monument at Sibley and Longfellow elementary schools and Northfield High School. The exhibit would include the history of the Wahpekute tribe and could include a historical marker and placards.
School Board members Julie Pritchard, Jeff Quinnell, Noel Stratmoen, Gonzalez-George and Corey Butler expressed support for renaming Sibley Spring Creek Elementary. Regardless of the school name, the mascot will continue to be the Stars.
To Quinnell, however, it is important to also honor city founders, including the town’s namesake, John North. He added his belief was based on his years on the Oak Lawn Cemetery Board and seeing the graves belonging to many of early Northfield officials.
Hillmann said though naming a school after a person “is considered an honor,” he acknowledged that decision sometimes doesn’t “age well.” To him, symbolism matters and the change allows for the district to be more inclusive. He also expects the change to more clearly outline the functions of school buildings.
Before the board approved the policy last year, then-School Board member Rob Hardy spoke of Sibley’s history as a fur trader and the part he played in past injustices against Native Americans. To Hardy, though some history lessons offered in schools illustrate Sibley’s positive work, that hasn’t adequately spotlighted his misdeeds.
For Sibley Elementary, 46 public submissions were made between Dec. 18 and Jan. 15. Sibley renaming committee members received a Google Forms link and had eight votes. Committee members could vote for eight different names or one name eight times. The eight names with the most votes advanced to the next voting round. From there, the three names with the best average ranking advanced for School Board consideration.
The public was invited to submit proposed names for Longfellow via a Google Forms document made available on Dec. 18. Hillmann said the final submission was made Dec. 30.