Butler County municipal courts must keep operating: How they’re doing it

Hamilton Municipal Court Judge Daniel Gattermeyer does his arraignments of people in jail through video using a laptop Friday morning, April 3, 2020 in Hamilton. Hamilton is one of many courts trying to find ways to minimize congestion in the courtrooms to reduce the spread of coronavirus. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

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Hamilton Municipal Court Judge Daniel Gattermeyer does his arraignments of people in jail through video using a laptop Friday morning, April 3, 2020 in Hamilton. Hamilton is one of many courts trying to find ways to minimize congestion in the courtrooms to reduce the spread of coronavirus. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Lower courts are the front line of the judicial system with defendants appearing for everything to traffic tickets to initial appearances for murder. If you are arrested one day, chances are you are going to appear before a municipal judge or area court judge or magistrate the next day.

In the past two weeks, all three Butler County municipal courts and three area courts have put practices into place to eliminate crowded courtrooms due to the coronavirus. On an ordinary spring Monday, Middletown and Hamilton municipal courts might have 40 cases on the docket, but during the current environment of health concerns, there are only a handful.

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Hamilton Municipal Court Judge Dan Gattermeyer said courts have to continue most cases until the quarantine is over. He is also arraigning incarcerated defendants through video using a laptop and microphone.

“Trying to make sure that we are trying to keep our staff safe, but we are required by the Ohio constitution to keep our courts open,” he said.

He said most lower-level cases and civil cases are being continued until June and July. But not all cases are continued. Gattermeyer said public defenders and the prosecutor are still in the courtroom, and people charged with serious felonies and domestic violence are having hearings. Bonds are set, and preliminary hearings are scheduled in 10 days for those who don’t make bond.

Jails have also released more people on their own recognizance.

“ So, frankly, I see only four or five a day,” Gattermeyer said.

He sits in a mostly empty courtroom at the bench and communicates with a defendant at the Butler County Jail via laptop.

“We are able to see them by video conferencing, they can see us and we take care of what we need to for their initial appearance,” he said.

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Gattermeyer said the court had been working on similar new technology when the pandemic was declared and similar video conferencing may continue when it is over.

“But, I still think in-person court appearances are a lot better, make more sense to me,” he said “You can just tell a lot from being able to see a person in person.”

In Middletown Municipal Court, Judge James Sherron is continuing to arraign incarcerated defendants three days a week. They are brought to court from the city jail in the same building and stand six feet way from the judge at the corner of the courtroom.

“We can’t just let them sit in jail because of this,” Sherron said.

He described the practice as “restrictive, but under the circumstances, necessary.”

Linda Lovelace, area courts administrator, said many cases in those courtrooms are also being continued for several weeks. And like in other courts, precautions are being taken for staff.

“We are rotating our staff in order to comply with the social distancing and giving them a break,” Lovelace said. “So, they work in teams, with one team on, then they are off a week, and Team 2 comes on. This approach is working fine for us since our dockets are drastically reduced to only essential things that need to be heard.”

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