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Las Vegas courthouse activity to progress in pandemic

Updated June 3, 2020 - 9:09 am

As Gov. Steve Sisolak lightened coronavirus pandemic restrictions across the state, officials at the Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas moved toward allowing more people inside the once-bustling courthouse.

Clark County’s first jury trial since March could still be more than a month away, as the court system works to summon potential jurors and adhere to social distancing requirements, Chief Judge Linda Bell said.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas Justice Court, which operates in the same building, returned Monday to conducting more routine procedures, such as arraignments and preliminary hearings for defendants who are either out of custody or jailed, according to Chief Justice of the Peace Suzan Baucum.

Bell has ordered that anyone who walks into the courthouse must wear a mask. Entrance to the building could be further delayed by lines extended by people who are 6 feet apart.

“Wait times are going to be longer getting in and out of the building,” Baucum said. “We’re just wanting people to be patient.”

At the start of the week, Bell delivered another order that called for screening anyone who enters.

Those who have traveled out of the United States within 14 days or live with someone who traveled outside the country in that time frame may not be allowed inside. People who have been asked to self-quarantine by a medical professional or not medically cleared of coronavirus, along with those with unexplained fever, cough, or shortness of breath, also would be restricted.

“To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we will need to change many of our ordinary practices in a manner that reduces the risks associated with this public health emergency,” Bell’s order, handed down Monday, stated. “It is critical to prevent the spread of illness among members of the Court, counsel, staff, the public, and our community partners.”

‘Some comfort level’

Those who get inside the 17-story building will notice a markedly different main lobby, though many of the upper floors that hold courtrooms remained relatively unchanged, aside from pandemic signage.

Strips of fluorescent green tape, spaced 6 feet apart, lined the sidewalk and steps leading to the main entrance along Lewis Avenue. Masked court marshals guarded the doors and the metal detectors inside.

Yellow police tape was draped over metal seats near the information desk, which itself had been taped off and included a plexiglass partition.

The same fluorescent tape marked 6-foot spaces on the beige speckled tile, as guardrails lead to the main elevator bank, where three of six elevators were out of order, similar to several bathrooms.

Social distancing signs in English and Spanish near the elevators prohibited more than four people per elevator. At the door of each set of bathrooms on every story, another group of bilingual signs instructed people on how to wash their hands.

Attorneys, witnesses and court staff would be required to wear masks during hearings and trials.

“It’s not comfortable,” Bell said. “I agree 100 percent. But I think it gives people some comfort level that they’re safer, and it’s respectful to the people that we’re around.”

Work ‘piling up’

Through the pandemic, many essential court hearings have been conducted via video conferencing. That’s expected to continue for months.

In an interview last week, Bell warned attorneys not to make appearances while driving to ensure safety and sound quality, “and just as a reminder that it’s still court.” She also recommended that lawyers dress appropriately for hearings, saying that one judge complained about an attorney who appeared on video conference in a bathrobe.

“We’ve got to start moving forward in cases,” she said. “I don’t think things will be normal.”

With the governor’s most recent order limiting gatherings to no more than 50 people, jury panels would be limited to one per day. Most courtrooms could hold about 25 people while adhering to social distancing requirements. Bell said that 70 people could be socially distanced in a third-floor jury services room.

Before the pandemic, the court averaged about 10 cases in trial per week, according to the judge.

“It’s a huge concern to make them feel safe,” she said, adding that jurors could enter the courthouse through a less-often-used south entrance. People uncomfortable serving on a jury during the pandemic may opt out once.

As the statewide restrictions continue, Bell said she reviews the conditions at the courthouse on a daily basis.

“I would like this to be normal,” she said. “But I think we’re going to have some level of these restrictions until we no longer have social distancing requirements. … You almost have to act like everybody has (the virus). We have work we need to get done … We know that work is just piling up.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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