Judge accused of failing to follow COVID-19 recommendations is removed from 2 trials

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An Ohio judge has been removed from two upcoming criminal trials after a lawyer for the defendants alleged that the judge was failing to implement COVID-19 precautions.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor removed Judge Mark Fleegle of Muskingum County, Ohio, from the trials last week, report Law360 and the Zanesville Times Recorder.

Columbus, Ohio, lawyer Harry Reinhart, 69, had alleged in a November affidavit that Fleegle conducts all hearings in person and does not require facial coverings. Reinhart said he is at higher risk if he contracts COVID-19, and his clients fear that he will be distracted at trial by his own health concerns, O’Connor said in her disqualification order.

In response to Reinhart’s affidavit, Fleegle said the measures mentioned by Reinhart are recommendations, rather than rules, and he thinks trials must continue to keep the system of government intact. He does require face masks now, however, because of an increase in COVID-19 cases.

Although he has no written policy, Fleegle said, social distancing will be followed, and courthouse staff will check temperatures of people entering the courthouse. There are some exceptions to the mask requirement. Fleegle won’t wear a mask when seated on the bench, witnesses will remove their masks when testifying, and lawyers may lower their masks when speaking. Potential jurors and others uncomfortable with the requirements may leave.

O’Connor said that, without a written protocol, no one will know what is expected of them in Fleegle’s courtroom. Fleegle has not specified how he intends to enforce social distancing. Nor has he identified a plan for sanitizing his courtroom or indicated that he is having some hearings remotely.

“In addition,” O’Connor said, “Judge Fleegle has failed to sufficiently explain the urgency of going forward with the two jury trials at this particular time.”

The Muskingum County prosecutor’s office said in a statement it thinks the court has taken appropriate precautions, according to the Zanesville Times Recorder.

“Muskingum County has successfully maintained the rights of victims and the accused, as well as the safety of the public,” the statement said.

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