RI courthouses given green light to gradually reopen come June


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ Beginning June 1, Rhode Island courts will slowly begin to increase the number of in-person court proceedings.

Paul Suttell, the chief justice of the R.I. Supreme Court, issued an executive order on May 15 allowing for the gradual ease back into in-person proceedings.

Courts have been open during the pandemic for emergency and essential matters, as well as virtual hearings, and with the new order, Rhode Island Court Administrator Joseph Baxter tells Eyewitness News they will begin to expand public access to court buildings statewide.

“We will have markings that will tell people not only where to stand, but where to proceed for pedestrian traffic so that again, we can limit the interaction of folks who are in the building at any one time,” Baxter said.

Baxter gave Eyewitness News a tour of the Licht, Garrahy and Noel Judicial Complexes Thursday to outline what adjustments will be made.

Sheriffs will monitor elevators to make sure no more than two people are inside at one time and health screening questions will be asked of everyone at security entrances. 

Baxter said virtual hearings have helped keep up with case filings, but there’s still a significant backlog of cases since March 1. He’s still unsure of how a trial by jury will work.

“There is no success story yet,” Baxter said. “It’s being looked into, but having virtual jurors as you can imagine certainly has it’s share of issues that we need to iron out.”

Courts will limit the number of courtrooms used each day and each will see about eight cases an hour, according to Baxter. He said that he expects the scheduling and planning of court cases to be a long term issue, even after there’s a vaccine for COVID-19. 

“We recognize that any number you fall short of on a given day will begin to cause a backup and that’s something that we’re going to have to tackle going forward,” Baxter said.

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