HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court issued an order Friday encouraging Montana courts to delay jury trials in an effort to slow transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The Supreme Court’s order, in the form of a letter from Chief Justice Mike McGrath, also requires state courts to release at-risk people over age 60 or with underlying health conditions from reporting for jury duty in person at the juror’s request.

Potential jurors who are considered high or medium risk for COVID-19 exposure by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control should be directed outright not to report for jury duty, McGrath also wrote. He said the CDC designation includes people who have traveled to China, South Korea, or parts of Europe, or had direct contact with a diagnosed coronavirus case in the past 14 days.

“At a time like this, it is especially critical that we continue ahead with an organized society that is able to demonstrate that we can absorb this potential crisis and continue to function in an orderly manner,” McGrath wrote.

“Without the courts properly functioning society can begin to drift into disorder and chaos,” he continued. “It is for this reason that the Courts must remain open.”

Friday, Kentucky’s chief justice announced its state court system will largely shut down for the next month to avoid spreading COVID-19 among courthouse crowds. As the disease spread in Seattle earlier this week, the U.S. District Court there also suspended all in-person proceedings.

The Montana order requires judges to give attorneys and defendants the option of delaying jury trials scheduled through April 30, and says they “should be encouraged” to take that option or have their case adjudicated in a jury-less bench trial. Defendants in criminal trials, McGrath wrote, should include a waiver of speedy trial rights as part of their delay request.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s office notified the public of the state’s first four presumptive coronavirus cases Friday evening. The CDC says the disease has infected at least 1,629 people and killed 41 in the U.S. 

The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic March 11, and as of March 13 reported 136,895 cases and 5,077 deaths from the virus globally.

Health experts, concerned about the disease spreading so fast it outpaces the health-care system’s ability to provide effective treatment, have urged “social distancing” and other measures designed to slow the outbreak.

This story was updated after publication to note Montana’s first presumptive cases in the outbreak.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.