Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Debra Stephens issued a new emergency order Wednesday evening, extending time frames for many criminal and civil matters in superior courts across Washington as the public health threat from the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend every aspect of daily life.
After closing bars and restaurants, banning large gatherings, and ordering nonessential workers to stay home in March, Gov. Jay Inslee is expected on Friday to extend the stay-home order, which was set to expire at the end of the day Monday. He’s also expected to announce a phased-in approach for safely reopening the state’s economy.
Acting before the governor’s scheduled announcement, Stephens’ latest emergency order makes clear that many of the state’s courts are ill-equipped to effectively comply with social-distancing and other public health requirements to slow the virus’ spread. As a result, the order says, in-person court appearances continue to jeopardize the health and safety of judges, attorneys, defendants, litigants, court staff and members of the public.
“The coordinated response from Washington courts to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 must be continued … while allowing courts to operate effectively and maintain effective and equitable access to justice,” says the order, which takes the place of previous orders issued by Stephens on March 4, March 18 and April 13.
The chief justice’s new order suspends all criminal and civil jury trials until at least July 6. Previously, Stephens’ March 18 order had required pending criminal and civil jury trials to be pushed back until late April.
All criminal hearings for defendants who are in custody in county jails awaiting trial are now postponed until June 1 — except for first appearances, when a judge decides whether probable cause exists that someone committed the crime he or she is accused of, usually within 24 hours of arrest; arraignments; plea hearings; criminal motions; and sentencing hearings. The order maintains priority for courts to hear motions for pretrial release and bail modifications and plea and sentencing hearings that result in the anticipated release of a defendant from jail within 30 days of the hearing.
Hearings involving out-of-custody adult defendants and juvenile respondents are to be postponed until at least June 1; people who are out-of-custody when criminal charges are filed against them between March 18 and July 3 can have their arraignments deferred for 45 days, says the order. Arraignments are typically held within two weeks of charges being filed.
While bench warrants can still be issued for adult criminal defendants who violate their conditions of release into the community, courts should not issue bench warrants for criminal defendants who fail to appear in person for court hearings or pretrial meetings unless there’s an immediate safety concern, the order says.
The order emphasizes that remote hearings be conducted by telephone or video as much as possible and that social-distancing measures be strictly observed for any in-person hearings. Phone and video hearings are to be recorded and preserved for the court record, and when needed, interpreters are to participate remotely whenever possible, the order says. Courts should also develop protocols to allow members of the public to observe video or telephonic hearings, it says.
Stephens’ order also encourages courts to provide a way for people to electronically obtain civil domestic-violence, sexual assault, stalking and harassment protection orders. Though in-person service of those orders by police officers remains preferred, especially when there are safety concerns, Stephens’ order allows those orders to be served to respondents by email, so long as there’s acknowledgment that the orders have been received. The surrender of weapons or the removal of a respondent from a shared residence with a protected person must still be done in person, the order says.
Though courts are encouraged to continue conducting as much business as possible within public health guidelines, Stephens’ order allows presiding judges to adopt even more restrictive measures if necessary to protect health and safety, including extending the time frames outlined in her most recent order.