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story.lead_photo.caption In this Aug. 31, 2016 file photo, Judge Jon Beetem asks questions of attorneys during a case in Cole County Circuit Court.

Cole County Circuit Court judges are looking to use off-site venues instead of the Cole County Courthouse in an attempt to maintain a civil trial docket.

At a meeting of the judges Monday afternoon, Presiding Judge Jon Beetem said they have looked at doing civil trials at the Miller Performing Arts Center while the Jefferson City School District is out of session this summer.

Last year, in discussions with the Cole County Commission, Beetem said COVID-19 social distancing requirements limits jury panels to 15 people at a time, where they would normally summon 60 people at a time. Instead of taking a half-day to pick a jury, it takes an entire day to get through the process. But using a larger venue would allow them to pick a jury in their regular fashion and try a case while maintaining social distancing.

Beetem said criminal trials can't be moved from the courthouse because of security issues, so they would continue to pick juries for those cases in the smaller groups.

Civil trials can last 10-12 days while most criminal trials usually take a maximum of a week to complete.

Also during their meeting, Beetem noted some minor changes to the COVID-19 operational procedures at the courthouse that began Monday.

The most significant change was temperature screenings for people coming into the courthouse were stopped. They will, though, continue that practice for those coming to the courthouse to be on juries.

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Regardless of vaccination status, all individuals will continue to be required to follow social-distancing protocols and wear masks or face coverings in court proceedings and in public areas of the courthouse.

The judges also discussed the wait list for people who need public defenders to represent them in court hearings. As of Monday, Beetem said, there were 188 cases on the Cole County list. He also noted Justin Carver, head of the Cole County Public Defender Office, is currently doing interviews for three openings that he is trying to fill.

The judges' concern is that new lawyers would need time to get up to speed on the specifics of cases and that would cause delays.

Currently, Carver and eight other lawyers work in the office. State Public Defender Mary Fox has said the General Assembly is considering legislation that would earmark $1 million to hire 15 new public defenders to eliminate some waiting lists for public defender services.

If the legislation passes, Fox said, there could be two more lawyers working out of the Cole County public defenders office by September.

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