Ohio State Supreme Court bars judge from holding non-emergency in-person hearings

The decision was made after lawyers voiced their concerns on the risks of exposure to COVID-19

Ohio State Supreme Court bars judge from holding non-emergency in-person hearings

The Ohio State Supreme Court passed a ruling prohibiting Medina County domestic relations judge Mary Kovack from holding in-person hearings for non-emergency cases in light of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the American Bar Association Journal.

Lawyers David McArtor and Adam Thurman filed requests to the court about the health risks involved for themselves, clients and courtroom staff after Kovack stripped her court magistrates of the ability to postpone hearings for COVID-19-related reasons based on attorney requests.

McArtor and Thurman’s complaint stated that Kovack had issued a written court policy on 16 March indicating that while final hearings in cases set to go to trial would be conducted via teleconferencing, an in-person hearing would set for the same day if parties could not agree to a settlement by phone. If parties could not agree to an in-person hearing, they would proceed with trial, including sending out subpoenas for witnesses.

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The policy remained in place despite stay-at-home orders issued by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and public health director Dr Amy Acton on 22 March, and urging by Chief Justice Maureen O’ Connor for non-emergency civil proceedings to be delayed. McArtor and Thurman argued that under Kovack’s policy, their clients were being pressured into either settling their cases or risking exposure to COVID-19.

Kovack responded an interview on Cleveland.com on 10 April that she intended to personally review each case in which a lawyer made a motion for continuance due to coronavirus concerns. Moreover, she said she had not been holding in-person hearings that were not essential, and her court was already set to receive a grant of about US$10,000 from the Supreme Court for the installation of videoconferencing software to facilitate remote hearings.

On 16 April, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that while Kovack could continue to conduct proceedings by telephone or videoconferencing, she could not hold in-person hearings unless in cases of emergency.

However, not everyone agreed with the court’s decision. 

Justice Sharon Kennedy stated that the need for in-person hearings was Kovack’s call as the judge presiding over her court. Moreover, Kovack had already implemented measures in line with Ohio Department of Health guidelines for face-to-face proceedings, such as social distancing and courthouse sanitation.

Justice Melody Stewart added that there was no proof that Kovack had proceeded with in-person hearings in McArtor and Thurman’s cases, and her court did not have to grant continuances to matters that had not been set for face-to-face proceedings.

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