A lot of the operating procedures have changed for the 10th Judicial District Court in Natchitoches Parish to deal with the coronavirus and the state’s reopening guidelines under Phase 1. What what does it all mean and what does it actually look like for judges and their staff members?
The Natchitoches Parish Journal wanted to provide readers with a window into the world of the courtroom and how operations have adapted. The Courthouse as a whole is requiring citizens to wear masks upon entering the building. Temperatures are also being checked at the main entrance and upstairs before anyone enters the courtroom.
Bathrooms and the courtroom itself are being cleaned between uses. Even the microphones are being cleaned after each person speaks into them and pens are being cycled out. The number of people allowed inside is being restricted. A lot of daily business is being conducted via Zoom and teleconference calls.
This makes for a much more solemn atmosphere. The hallways aren’t bustling with people as one might be used to. But Judge LaLa Sylvester and Judge Desiree Dyess are adjusting to the changes and the increased use of technology to get work done.
“Court came to a halt for a few weeks in the beginning,” said Judge Sylvester. “But things haven’t slowed down at all. It’s put more on our workloads because it takes a lot more steps to make things happen but we’re impressed with how we’re all learning to be able to communicate in new ways.”
Dyess agreed by saying the technological advancements have allowed the court to continue through this pandemic. Particularly with drug and juvenile court, digital meetings have allowed the judges to maintain contact in a time when contact is important.
“Our staff has been working together to accommodate lawyers so they can continue to have full access to justice,” she said.
Perhaps a more visual representation of the safety measures being taken in the court room are the plexiglass sneeze shields that were installed as a barrier between the public and the court proceeding, the plaintiff from the defendant, the judge from the courtroom, and the staff members from everyone else. The number of people allowed to sit in the courtroom is also restricted and blue x’s taped to the back of the benches show where people are allowed to sit while still maintaining social distancing requirements.
It’s an impressive presentation geared toward the safety of everyone involved. What’s more impressive is that the 10th Judicial District Court is at the forefront of these actions. Judge Sylvester said they’re the first in the state to have the plexiglass shields installed and have been very proactive in trying to get the courts open again.
This has taken many meetings at the Courthouse between the judges and the other departments, so a unified operations plan could be put into place for the whole building. It also involved participating in a multitude of conference calls to see what was being done across the state, including the National Center for State Courts, the National Judicial College, The Louisiana Supreme Court, the Louisiana State Bar Association and more.
“I think everyone is happy the courthouse is open,” said Judge Sylvester. “We’re very pleased with how the public has handled our reopening. Their positive attitudes and cooperation has been amazing.”
Judge Sylvester added that she’s felt safe at the Courthouse through all this but recognizes the need for people to wear masks in public. Not knowing if you have the virus and being able to spread it makes this a serious risk for everyone.
At the end of the day, the 10th Judicial District Court still has a job to do in the midst of the pandemic.
“We took an oath to uphold the law and keep everyone safe,” said Judge Dyess. “It’s a delicate balance and we work hard to maintain it.”