15th JDC Chief Judge Marilyn Castle on Impact of COVID-19 on Courthouse Operations

Marilyn Castle, Chief Judge of the 15th Judicial District Court covering Lafayette, Acadia, and Vermilion Parishes, joined Jan Swift on Discover Lafayette to discuss how the operations of the courthouse have been impacted due to the pandemic shutdown.

Judge Castle received her Juris Doctorate from LSU in 1976 and then served early in her career as an Assistant DA. From 1979 until her election to the bench in November 1998, her practice focused primarily in the areas of business and commercial litigation. She has served as President of the Lafayette Parish Bar Association and is active in her community both in her church at Asbury United Methodist Church and the Bonaparte Mardi Gras Krewe.

No stranger to leading during times of crisis, Judge Castle also served as Chief Judge during 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The pandemic, however, has altered operations in the courthouse in ways no one has ever experienced and which called for unparalleled crisis management.

Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mark Garber took swift steps to close off the jail facility from outside traffic in his effort to keep the prisoners safe from the coronavirus, which actions have prevented an outbreak in the jail. Any new arrestees are put under a fourteen-day quarantine. No inmates have left the facility to appear in court, and the number of visitors going into the jail has been extremely limited. Most “court” appearances by prisoners have been conducted by video conference, although under Lousiana law some appearances, such as sentencing, must be conducted in person. Glass partitions separate the prisoners from visitors such as Judge Castle, and all visitors have to have their temperature checked before entering. Prisoners are separated in smaller numbers into pods to cut down exposure from the greater population.

From March 16, 2020 until the courthouse reopened for general business on May 18, 2020, all hearings were conducted by video, except for emergency hearings involving juvenile matters or for people seeking protective orders. Staff worked from home, and there were no in-court, in-person proceedings except for the emergency matters mentioned herein.

A large number of criminal court appearances such as pre-trial matters, criminal trials, and rules originally scheduled to take place during the shutdown were missed, and people whose hearings were postponed are now mandated to go to the courthouse to receive “re-service of their summons” to obtain their new date of criminal hearing, as outlined in the 15TH JDC Phase 1 Order. Based upon the alphabet according to the individual’s last name, the dates to visit the courthouse for this mandated re-service are as follows: A – I: Tuesday, May 26; J – Q: Wednesday, May 27; and R – Z: Thursday, May 28. Large tents will be set up on the E. Main side of the courthouse and people will be directed to the service desk by a bailiff. People who fail to show up can expect a sheriff’s deputy at their door with a bench warrant for their arrest.

People whose criminal hearings were postponed are now mandated to go to the courthouse to receive “re-service of their summons” to obtain a new date for their criminal hearing, as outlined in the 15TH JDC Phase 1 Order. Pictured: Chief Judge Marilyn C. Castle speaking at City Hall. Wednesday, May 13, 2020(Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network)

Most of the civil trials that were scheduled during the shutdown have been reset for later this year. The majority of cases heard by the court are criminal in nature and the judges are having to work out how juries will be selected and how they will accommodate the spacing issues involved. Only a few courtrooms have a large enough capacity to seat jurors six feet apart, and the size of jury pools will be limited; people called for jury duty will not have to worry that they will be packed tightly in a small room with 100 or more people.

Attorneys will have to pay close attention to prescriptive deadlines which were suspended until June 5 by proclamation of Gov. John Bel Edwards. No default judgments have been entered and won’t be until the governor’s order is lifted and prescriptive periods begin to run again.

The Court reopened May 18 at a 25% limitation on capacity, requiring people to wear masks and sanitize their hands. People who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 will not be allowed to enter. Cleaning crews sanitize the space after people leave a room. The public is asked to bring their own mask, but the court does have a limited supply of masks if needed.   

Jury trials are still on hold until June 30, according to a directive from the Louisiana Supreme Court. However, anyone who has a scheduled court appearance from May 18th forward must appear. It is important, Judge Castle emphasized, that people pay close attention to information on the 15th JDC website and any official correspondence they receive.

The 15th Judicial District Court reopened May 18 at a 25% limitation on capacity, requiring people to wear masks, and excludes people who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.   Jury trials are still on hold until June 30, according to a directive from the Louisiana Supreme Court

Attorneys and litigants have had to learn quickly to embrace technology as a means of affording access to the court and its judges. Apps such as Zoom have been heavily relied upon and have reduced not only the fiscal costs of transporting people from out of the parish but also the time involved in travel. Under current law, however, certain proceedings must be conducted in person and there is no allowance for a video conference. Judge Castle has enjoyed using Zoom for its convenience and the ability to see the participants’ faces up close. She is hopeful that the Louisiana Legislature will realize that requirements of in-person appearances can be loosened as we draw from the experience of the shutdown and that laws may be amended to allow for increased use of technology

The upcoming fall elections are going to bring the biggest turnover of judges that Castle has experienced in her twenty-two years on the bench. She anticipates five new judges as some of the sitting judges are retiring or seeking other elected offices. With that turnover comes a loss of institutional knowledge which will be especially challenging as the court system evolves to adapt in the aftermath of the pandemic.

To access the 15TH Judicial District Court Emergency Order on the re-opening of the court system, in particular for people who missed criminal proceedings originally scheduled between March 16 and May 18, 2020, please visit https://www.15thjdc.org/uploads/15thJDCsPhaseOneOrder.pdf.

We thank Judge Marilyn Castle for her service to our community and for taking the time to visit with Discover Lafayette. She is a wonderful role model for those in the legal profession and anyone with a passion for justice.