District Court moves toward in-person proceedings

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Osage County District Court proceedings can now move back in the direction of “normal” business, with District Judge Stuart Tate having issued an order March 22, allowing in-person gatherings.

Tate’s order recognizes that COVID-19 remains a threat to public health, but classifies it as a “diminishing” threat due both to an overall decline in cases and “the increasing percentage of vaccinated individuals.”

“The entirety of the data seemed to suggest we were making some headway,” Tate told the Journal-Capital.

“All matters may resume in-person at the discretion of the assigned judge,” Tate’s order says; however, it continues to place a firm emphasis on the importance of wearing face coverings and exercising social distancing measures.

The document says all persons appearing before the court in courtrooms or judicial chambers shall continue to wear coverings over their noses and mouths “during the entirety of the appearance.” The emphasis is on the word “shall.” The same regulation applies to persons doing business in the Court Clerk’s office.

The order adds that assigned judges and bailiffs are to manage cases and dockets in a manner calculated to ensure continued social distancing.

“At the discretion of the assigned judge, any hearing or docket may be held virtually in accordance with applicable statutes and rules,” the order also says, making it clear that judges may cut off in-person access in instances where circumstances warrant the restriction.

“I think everybody has, as time has gone by, at least attempted to strike a balance,” Tate said, clarifying that the District Court could tighten up the arrangement if the threat seemed to increase again.

Sheriff Eddie Virden told the Journal-Capital last Friday that his office is moving in the direction of resuming the incarceration of suspects in lesser criminal cases, in keeping with its common practice prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Sheriff’s Office is also responding to the apparent decline in the public health threat, he said.

As of March 30, the Oklahoma State Department of Health classified Osage County as a “yellow” county in its four-tiered, color-coded risk assessment system. “Yellow” is considered “low risk.” The OSDH showed Osage County as having approximately 12.2 daily new cases per 100,000 residents. The county had an estimated population of a little over 46,600 as of 2020.

The OSDH asks that businesses in “yellow” counties take “reasonable precautions.” This includes the wearing of face coverings where physical distancing is not feasible.