COVID-19 circumstances in Jefferson County Lawyer’s Workplace threatens court docket

COVID-19 cases in Jefferson County Attorney's Office threatens court


Some criminal cases may be postponed next week in Jefferson District Court because of an outbreak of COVID-19 in the county attorney’s office.

Four staff members, including three prosecutors, tested positive for the virus in recent days, and an additional 16 staff members are now in self-quarantine as a precaution, spokesman Josh Abner said in a news release.

The quarantined staff include 12 assistant county attorneys. The office has 103 employees including 67 attorneys.

Court operations were not affected Friday, but the absences likely will do so in the coming weeks, Abner said. Chief District Judge Anne Haye and the state Administrative Office of the Court will decide on postponements.

Abner said the Metro Health Department has been contacted so that additional contact tracing can be considered.

Judge Stephanie Pearce Burke said judges had been previously told that at least eight prosecutors are out of action because of the virus.

Jefferson District Judge Stephanie Pearce (Photo: Courier Journal)

Burke, who suffers from an illness that makes her immuno-compromised, said some staff and judges, including her, are “very distressed” that more information is not being shared in the courthouse about the virus. 

“There seems to be a sense of trying to keep it quiet, rather than a duty to warn others working in the building,” she said. 

She also said the 17 district judges voted last week to switch divisions every day, which she said she fears increases the risk of spreading the virus and violates protocols about working in small clusters to reduce exposure and risks. 

She said judges voted for the rotation in part to avoid making a single judge sit for an extended period in eviction court, where they might be forced to make controversial decisions that would entice an attorney to run against them in the next judicial election. 

“The argument is that we need to rotate through evictions to ‘share the hate,'” she said, “I would rather be alive and have a race than bring home COVID to my husband and children.” 

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Haynie, the chief judge, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Other judges did not immediately respond to questions about whether they share Burke’s concerns. 

Burke also said the circuit clerk’s office is not following coronavirus guidelines to limit exposure of deputies. 

She said deputy clerks have tested positive over the past few weeks, including one who worked in district court and was hospitalized after becoming extremely ill. 

“It keeps happening, and it is kept under wraps,” Burke said. 

Kevin Smalley, chief administrator for the clerk’s office, disputed that.

He said the office has regularly communicated with its judicial partners, subject to the limits of federal medical privacy law

He also said the office has diligently followed Supreme Court orders since March, including by reducing staff.

“We have been very careful not to cross-contaminate our teams,” he said,. “Teams that worked together still work together.”

In July, six of the 10 Jefferson Family Court judges went into self-imposed quarantine after they learned they had been exposed to two court workers who have tested positive for COVID-19.

A spokesman for the clerk’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The judges included Chief Judge Tara Hagerty, who said none of the judges or the court employees have any symptoms of the coronavirus. 

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Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell (Photo: The Courier Journal)

Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. in March shut down most court operations because of the pandemic, but the Supreme Court allowed criminal jury trials to resume Aug. 1. It also said eviction proceeding could begin again, subject to federal restrictions. 

The court also mandated the use of facial coverings during jury trials by parties, attorneys, witnesses, jurors and members of the public and the media.  

In his office’s statement, County Attorney Mike O’Connell said: “Anyone who isn’t taking measures to protect themselves from COVID or thinks it cannot reach their family or business is making a serious mistake.

“It has come to our office even with consistent mask use, sanitizing, and working to stay physically distanced,” he said, “I urge everyone to take all possible precautions this Labor Day and Derby weekend to limit the spread of this disease.”

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