Breaking News
More () »

COVID-19 reveals never-before-seen challenges in the Arkansas court system

Judges across the state are weighing their options for in-person hearings as coronavirus continues to spread.

ARKANSAS, USA — COVID-19 has revealed a new set of challenges in the Arkansas court system.

“We’re having to adapt using new techniques and procedures that have never been used before,” said Robert Herzfeld, circuit judge. "And, we have to take as many precautions as we can."

RELATED: Researchers cite lack of social distancing regulations in Arkansas for spike in COVID-19 cases

Circuit Judge Robert Herzfeld, like many others, are faced with the task to achieve justice in a safe way.

"For me, that means holding court over zoom, even if connectivity is an issue,” said Herzfeld.

From the Saline County Courthouse, now to his home office, since the COVID-19 outbreak began, Herzfeld has had more than 100 virtual hearings.

Though it's been a challenge, his court staff has adjusted.

"We've adapted to new ways of handling evidence and witnesses,” said Herzfeld.

But for jury trials, come even tougher challenges, according to Herzfeld.

In March, the Arkansas Supreme Court suspended in-person hearings and that suspension recently ended July 1, but Herzfeld said it's still not safe to head back to a full courtroom.

"If you have people packed in there, all breathing the same air over a period of hours, which is what we do in regular court, that is an extremely likely way to pass on the virus if someone has it,” said Herzfeld.

Now the question is, how do the courts safely hold in-person hearings while protecting constitutional rights?

"If you have a witness wearing a mask in a criminal case, and you can't see their face, should they take their mask off, all these questions we are wrestling with,” said Herzfeld.

Many judges have turned to large event centers to achieve safety.

"Our plans are to use big screens in the event center like you would at a convention, use video technology, audio systems, to literally make sure voices will be heard."

RELATED: Here's which Arkansas cities have adopted ordinances requiring masks in public

The Arkansas Supreme Court through the chief justice’s leadership has provided thousands of dollars’ worth of PPE to the courts.