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Montana Chief justice signals courts to loosen COVID restrictions
Montana Chief justice signals courts to loosen COVID restrictions

Montana Chief justice signals courts to loosen COVID restrictions

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Jury Trials 1

Missoula District Judge Shane Vannatta prepares the courtroom for the start of a civil trial last week at the Missoula County Courthouse. Holding jury trials has become more complicated and time-consuming because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and courts face a backlog of cases.

The Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice on Monday signaled to the lower courts it's time to loosen restrictions around courtrooms that went into place early in the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

In a memo on Monday, Chief Justice Mike McGrath directed the lower courts to scale back requirements on face masks and remote hearings, the components that allowed the courts to continue as the virus surged and subsided again.

The rollback follows new guidance from public health authorities, the availability of vaccines and new state and federal public health recommendations, McGrath wrote.

Gov. Greg Gianforte rescinded the statewide mask mandate in February, and counties have incrementally rolled back local public health requirements as well. The state university system also ended its on-campus mask requirements on Monday.

Roughly 775,000 vaccines have been administered in Montana as of Tuesday, with about 370,000 state residents fully vaccinated

"Again, I cannot overstate how impressed I am by the work of each of you during this historic pandemic," he wrote. "The Judicial Branch continued to meet its constitutional and statutory obligations despite the most significant public health emergency in more than a hundred years. Individual judges, court staff and our court partners are to be commended for their efforts."

Face coverings are no longer required in courts but can be ordered locally, McGrath wrote Monday. Courts can continue using remote hearings, and attorneys or litigants who are at high-risk should be allowed to do so, he added. 

Distancing should be maintained as appropriate for each community and signage should remain at courthouses telling people who are ill to not enter the building, McGrath wrote. 

Court officials conducting trials must, "at a minimum," use enhanced questionnaires to shorten the jury selection process; excuse jurors in advance who are at high-risk for the virus; work with local health officials to manage the number of jurors; and make hand sanitizer available to jurors and others in the courtroom. 

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