Question of Ethics: A Video Conversation on Courts and EthicsWinter 2021 Edition

Brought to You in Cooperation with NACM

These last two turbulent years have brought into sharp relief the dynamic tension between a court’s duty to keep both employees and the public safe, and the duty to respect the privacy and the personal choices of those very same employees and the public.  This conversation is taking place at a time when many of us thought (or at least hoped), that these kinds of discussions were behind us.  We could move on.  Yet, as of December of 2021 the recent appearance of yet another COVID variant has raised a new round of concerns.

Three examples suggest points where work life has become increasingly intrusive, yet employees and the public are still at risk.

  1. As court offices reopen, some returning employees have refused to disclose their vaccine status.  This can put those very same employees as well as others at a higher risk of contracting COVID.
  • As more courthouses open again for staff and the public, some members of the public refuse to disclose their vaccine status and refuse to wear a mask.  Security at the front door has occasionally refused them entry; they are therefore being denied access to justice.
  • Courthouses, as public buildings, need to be accessible to the public.  However, there have been instances of employees being attacked by individuals.[1] 

[1] Employee Attacked in King County Courthouse Bathroom: 1 Arrested, The Columbian, July 30, 2021

Three canons of NACM’s Model Code of Conduct for Court Professionals come into play when discussing this dynamic tension:

  • NACM Canon 1.1 states that a court professional faithfully carries out all appropriately assigned duties.

Is not the safety of court employees and the public a fundamental duty? What could be more basic than ensuring the health and well-being of the staff and public that comes to the courthouse every day?

  • NACM Canon 1.3 states that a court professional must make the court accessible.

Presumably, the courthouse must be accessible to the public and its employees.  Can court security limit public access by demanding to know if an individual has legitimate business in the courthouse?

  • NACM Canon 2.7 states that a court professional respects the personal lives of litigants, the public, and employees.

How intrusive can security personnel get in demanding to know about the medical background and business of the public and employees?

Watch the Winter 2021 Edition of A Question of Ethics Conversation 39 Minutes 30 Seconds

Listen to the Winter 2021 A Question of Ethics Conversation 38 Minutes 7 Seconds

Leave a question or comment about the episode at ethics@nacmnet.org

Today’s Panelists

Barbara Marcille is the Trial Court Administrator for the Circuit Court in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area, and manages approximately 330 employees across five court facilities with 58 courtrooms. She has served in a variety of roles for the courts in Oregon, New Mexico, and North Carolina, and holds a degree in Business from Florida State University. Prior to working with the court system she was Client Services Manager for a high-tech advertising agency in the Silicon Valley, and has combined that communications background with her commitment to public service to help the court improve access to justice.

For the last six years she has collaborated on the design and construction of a new 17-story courthouse on the Portland waterfront, and successfully completed the opening of that new courthouse in the midst of the 2020 pandemic.

About two thirds of employees in Barbara’s court come into the office. She expects nearly all will be onsite by January.  The Chief Justice has required all staff and judges to be full vaccinated (except for medical and religious exemptions).  Those not vaccinated must test twice a week. Masks are required when one is not in a private office.  To avoid large groups of potential jurors, Barbara’s court went to remote jury selection.  The court will return to in-person voir dire in January.  The public is rarely refused entry into the courthouse, only in extreme circumstances.

Courtney Whiteside is passionately dedicated to providing the citizens of Missouri with a fair and unbiased judiciary through education and collaboration with the other branches of government, our community and national partners and providing our judicial staff with the tools to be successful in this fast-paced environment. Her journey in the judiciary started in 2012 in her hometown of St. Charles, Missouri as a court clerk then taking her to Jefferson City to work with the Office of State Courts Administrator and on to the Missouri Supreme Court to serve as the state’s municipal division courts monitor.

Today Courtney is the Director of the St. Louis County Municipal Division where she continues to pursue providing educational opportunities to municipal divisions and clerks through various committees and educational groups of the state while promoting cultural and procedural r

reform progression. It is her great honor to partner with judicial partners in Missouri and across the nation.

Supervisors at St. Louis Municipal Court are back in the office, but staff rotate between home and their work site.  Employees must attest to being vaccinated (except for medical and religious exemptions).  Those not vaccinated must test every 7 days.  The County requires masks.  People are not allowed entrance to the courthouse if they have a temperature, but most locations do not take the temperatures.

Karl Thoennes III began his career in the courts in Alaska in 1988, ultimately working as a division supervisor at the state’s largest trial court in Anchorage.  He was appointed as Court Administrator in Todd County, Minnesota in 1998, and then Stearns County, St. Cloud, two years later.  In 2004 he was appointed as Administrator for the Second Judicial Circuit in South Dakota, the state’s largest circuit by population.  For the past five years, together with Peter Kiefer, Karl has been the regular columnist on ethics in The Court Manager, a national publication for court leaders.  Karl has served as speaker or panelist on a number of state, regional, and national programs including conferences for the National Association for Court Management, the Mid-Atlantic Association for Court Management, and various other colleges, universities, and professional associations in Minnesota and South Dakota. 

Karl has guest lectured at St. Cloud State University on court structure and management, spoken on international public ethics in Minneapolis, and completed two graduate seminars in public policy in Sapporo, Japan, first as a student and then guest speaker.   He holds a Masters degree in public administration from the University of Alaska.  Contact: Second Judicial Circuit, 425 N. Dakota Avenue, Sioux Falls, SD  57104.  Phone: 605-367-5920.  Fax: 605-367-5979.  E-mail: karl.thoennes@ujs.state.sd.us

Karl’s court never closed. Around the middle of 2020 about a quarter of staff worked remotely.  Now, nearly all employees are back in the office.  The court has no mask or vaccination requirements other than any employee or member of the public who tests positive for COVID should not come to the courthouse.  They do not take temperatures.

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