Courthouse goes virtual; filings and proceedings change to email

An empty courtroom is shown Tuesday at the Cleveland County Courthouse.

NORMAN — Residents who need to conduct non-emergency business at the Cleveland County courthouse can do so electronically, a new order from the court justices filed Monday shows. Those who show up at the door will be met by a deputy.

The court order is signed by Cleveland County Court Justices and allows briefs, motions for court rulings and other matters such marriage licenses to be filed by email. It also sets guidelines for the proceedings such procedures to pay fees associated with filings.

Payment can be made by credit card and once received, the court clerk will email the receipt and proof of the filing.

The state supreme court granted Cleveland County the ability to take transactions online for all "non-emergency matters," the order states.

Effective Monday, phase two, a new court order approved electronic filing of briefs and motions by email to the court clerk, "instead of walking them in," Balkman said.

Teleconference and video conferences are being used widely when possible.

The second order comes after judges received word March 21 that a county employee was diagnosed with COVID-19 and had "limited contact with the courthouse," Balkman's order on Monday stated.

Despite the precautions taken by the court, an emailed statement from Cleveland County Commissioner Rod Cleveland warned county offices, include the courthouse, could be locked.

"The courthouse continues to have limited access to the public. However, if the mayor calls for more shutdowns, we will close the courthouse for public access. The county offices and the courts will remain open to the public" but by "appointment," Cleveland's statement reads. "The public can contact the office they are need of assistance with to set up an appointment."

Cleveland asked the public to be patient with deputies at the door "if you need to come to the courthouse. The deputies may ask you your intended business and what office you need to visit."

The first order issued March 16 effectively banned the public from accessing the courthouse without prior approval from the court and limited all in-person proceedings.

"Members of the public may only be granted access by judicial permission, by appointment made with the district attorney, sheriff or court clerk, or to conduct emergency matters," the Phase 1 court order stated.

The court limited access to staff based on the discretion of the court.

"Access to the Cleveland County Courthouse for judicial or court purposes shall be limited to employees designated by the Cleveland County court clerk and the Cleveland County sheriff, attorneys and staff designated by the District Attorney's Office for the 21st Judicial District," the order reads.

The second order suspended all in-person proceedings at the close of business Monday unless it could be conducted remotely or under circumstances that did not put anyone at risk for contracting the virus. The Norman probation and parole office also closed, with offenders required to check in with officers by phone.

Court matters that are exempt include misdemeanor or felony arraignments, applications for emergency protective orders, emergency hearings for child custody, visitation, guardianship, mental health applications and Department of Human Services emergency proceedings for child protection and emergency protection of the elderly or "vulnerable persons," the order reads.

Emergency public health proceedings to COVID-19 and "other exceptions approved by the Chief Judge (Balkman)" were exempt from the order.

The first phase of restrictions March 16 stopped most arrest warrants for minor and non-violent offenses. Balkman's court order limited the flow of people entering the courthouse and the jail, as those accused of certain offenses were released on their own recognizance bonds. In-person proceedings were suspended and certain trials were rescheduled.

The unforeseen circumstances the virus imposed will burden the court, which is already stretched thin, District Judge Lori Walkley said.

Walkley tracks statistical data on courthouse trends such as caseload.

"If you look at our caseload per judge right now, we are right at the highest in the state," Walkley said.

Approximately half of cases on a docket for Walkley were handled through email and teleconference. Another judge, she said, has 60 cases on his docket for Wednesday.

Hundreds of cases will be affected, Walkley said.

"That's as of today," she said Monday. "That's only going to get worse."

Even important proceedings such as the death penalty case against Joseph Alliniece will be delayed. A jury trial was scheduled to begin next week, but it may rescheduled for late May to early June for proceedings.

Jury terms were suspended as part of the first phase of restrictions. Walkley said despite avoiding rescheduled jury trials during July, "because it's hard on citizens," justices are considering it with the caseload piling up.

While those accused of violent criminals remain removed from the public, other consequences of delayed civil cases may hit plaintiffs hard financially if they are delayed for several months.

"If I'm a small business owner and I'm suing someone because they're not paying me, and I can't pay my people because he's not paying me, they need resolution as much as anyone," Walkley said. "Some cases, family law cases take a hit when it goes downhill."

Judges are pitching in to manage the caseload pileup as much as possible, even foregoing vacations as they try to sort out how to streamline court actions. Walkley praised the hard work of her fellow justices and court staff.

"We're going to get through this," she said. "I couldn't ask for a better bench to serve with."

Mindy Ragan Wood416-4420mwood@normantranscript.com

Contact information for county offices and courthouse staff

County Commissioner Office: 366-0200

County Treasurer Office: 366-0217

County Clerk Office: 366-0240

County Assessor Office: 366-0230

County Court Clerk Office: 321-6402

District Attorney Office: 321-8268

Cleveland County Election Office: 366-0210

Cleveland County Fairgrounds: 360-4721

Cleveland County Purchasing Office: 366-0224

Contact information for court filings electronically:

Marriage license applicants can schedule an appointment with the court clerk by email at clevelandclerk@oscn.net.

Non-emergency pleadings can be emailed to clevelandpleadings@oscn.net.

Applications for emergency protective orders and court appointed counsel are available at the courthouse. However, they can be found at clevelandcountyok.com, or request the form by email to clevelandclerk@oscn.net. Applications can be filled out and turned in to pam.dominic@oscn.net or dropped off at the courthouse, where blank applications are provided.

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