For the second time since the novel coronavirus spread in Washington state, the King County Superior Court suspended all in-person jury trials starting Friday.
On Monday, King County District Court officials said they, too, would suspend in-person jury trials.
Superior Court officials said in a news release that they would continue to monitor coronavirus numbers to determine how long the suspension would continue — they expected that monitoring process to continue through Jan. 11.
During this time, civil jury trials will continue virtually, as will trials without juries — in civil, family law, involuntary treatment and dependency. Criminal jury trials had been held in-person and are now suspended.
“The well-being of our jurors, litigants, and staff is our utmost concern. We are grateful for their service, and the trust they place in us,” said King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers in the statement. “Suspending jury trials is necessary to protect their health and safety, and that of our entire community.”
The announcement comes as Washington and King County face a spike in coronavirus cases. On Saturday, the state Department of Health confirmed 1,717 new coronavirus cases in the state, bringing the totals up to 141,260 cases as of 11:59 Friday. That was an undercount due to a backlog in processing at least 53,000 results to tests for coronavirus and other diseases.
In King County, the DOH confirmed 518 new cases, bringing the county’s total to 37,631 diagnoses and 847 deaths.
Rogers noted that King County Superior Court has held more jury and bench trials than any other court of its size in the third quarter of 2020.
The coronavirus has upended the King County court system. In-person trials were halted in early March, too, in response to a Supreme Court order. A Seattle Times visit to the King County Superior Court this summer showed a stark contrast to the usually packed courthouses.
In the months since the pandemic began, courthouses nationwide have been grappling with how to keep the wheels of justice turning. Earlier this year, Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez told The Seattle Times that like the rest of society, it will take months or years to bring courtrooms back to pre-coronavirus operations, if that’s possible at all.
“It wasn’t hard to do what we’ve done,” said Martinez, who chairs a national committee assigned by the U.S. Judicial Conference to “reconstitute” the federal judicial system in the wake of the coronavirus shutdowns. “We had to act swiftly. I did not want to be the first in terms of federal districts to get slammed with the coronavirus.”
“I am not sure how we come back,” he said. “We are treading in areas where we have never been before.”
In July, King County Superior Court turned Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center into a pop-up courthouse, allowing for social distancing beyond the limited space in the Court’s existing facilities. That extra space enabled jury trials to resume, with some coronavirus safety modifications. To make it all work, the court revamped its air-filtration systems and boosted its cleaning and sanitization processes.
“We are far better able to respond to the pandemic now than we were ten months ago because of the all the work we have done and all we have learned,” Rogers said.
The King County District Court, which has 10 locations across the county, will temporarily suspend jury trials through January 11. The court will assess the situation on a bi-weekly basis. The District Court, too, expanded its use of video technology to hold hearings.