Courthouse restricts access as pandemic worsens

March 24, 2020 8:59 AM

New restrictions are in effect at the Lincoln County District Courthouse as the region braces for COVID-19.

District Court Judge Matthew Cuffe signed several orders last week aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus in the upper floor of the courthouse. County officials followed suit this week, limiting public access to the rest of the building as well as annex facilities in Libby and Eureka.

Mark Peck, chair of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, said the decision to restrict access was made locally, but came highly recommended from state and federal officials. Most services provided in the administrative offices housed in the courthouse can be handled online or over the phone, he said. Numbers for various offices and officials are available on the Internet, he said.

Officials will waive any fees or fines associated with renewals or other services that cannot be handled digitally or telephonically, he said.

“If you need something, we’ll work it out,” Peck said.

County personnel will continue coming to work unless they suffer from a compromised immune system or are otherwise susceptible to COVID-19, Peck said. Employees no longer serving the public at the counter will focus on backlogged work, he said.

The board of commissioners meeting scheduled for March 25 has been cancelled, Peck said. Any future public meetings will be held digitally using software like Zoom, he said.

As for Lincoln County District Court, while criminal cases will go forward as before, officials are attempting to mitigate close contact.

Defendants held at the county jail, for example, will be broadcast via video into the courtroom. Those not incarcerated may enter the courtroom for hearings, but officials said “requests to handle the hearings remotely can be expected to be granted.”

In an administrative order, Cuffe barred spectators from attending criminal and civil cases. Only court staff, witnesses, attorneys, journalists and parties to the cases will be allowed entry.

Under the order, all those present in the courtroom must stay six feet away from one another, excepting security personnel. Anyone with symptoms of the virus, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control, risk being barred entry.

A third order, filed March 19, directed attorneys and self-represented litigants to file courthouse paperwork via fax at 406-283-2350 or by email at 19thcoc@mt.gov. Copies must be served to the opposing party as per the state’s rules of procedure.

Cuffe urged all parties to consider continuing what he described as non-essential hearings. Those that are continued will be reset after April 30. He also encouraged attorneys to work together to teleconference when possible. Questions regarding video conferencing are directed to Court Administrator Deb Kambel at 406-293-8120.

“Do not come to the courthouse unless necessary,” the March 19 order read in all caps.

“Parties flexibility coordinating with the court during this time is essential,” Cuffe wrote. “Keep in mind the primary concern is to avoid and minimize serious risks. However, litigants’ resolution of legal problems is a priority and access to the courts will be maintained.”