King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers ordered all jury trials to be suspended until April 24, and suspended the issuance of jury summonses starting Monday, according to his emergency order filed Friday in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Jury summonses are suspended until April 27 and court personnel will immediately call off any summonses that have already been sent, Rogers’ order says. He confirmed by email that criminal trials that have already begun and those in which a jury is currently deliberating will continue until verdicts are reached.
In Snohomish County, Superior Court Presiding Judge Bruce Weiss issued a similar order due to the outbreak, suspending all criminal jury trials until at least April 24, and all civil jury trials until at least June 1, according to his emergency order, also filed Friday.
Pierce County Superior Court also announced all jury trials, except those already in progress, will be suspended until April 24, according to a Friday news release. Civil and criminal jury trials will be continued to later dates or proceed as bench trials if all parties, including criminal defendants, agree, the release says.
In Pierce County, criminal defendants are still required to appear in court between Monday and April 24 or a bench warrant will be issued, the news release says. In Snohomish County, however, criminal hearings are stricken and out-of-custody defendants aren’t required to appear for the court’s criminal trial call next Friday, according to Weiss’ order.
On Monday, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Debra Stephens authorized presiding trial-court judges to take appropriate measures to protect court personnel, litigants and members of the public in the wake of the virus’ spread.
“These measures could include relocating or modifying regular operations or suspending court rules to address emergency conditions in their local community, should the need arise,” says a news release issued by Washington Courts.
Rogers this week directed judges assigned to pending civil jury trials to contact attorneys and let them know it could be 60 to 90 days before enough jurors were available, since people showing up to serve jury duty were being assigned to criminal trials. Now that criminal trials are being postponed, the delay for civil trials will likely be longer.
Also Friday, Rogers issued an order requiring all civil hearings to be heard by phone unless an in-person appearance was requested, while Weiss’ order strongly encouraged civil hearings be conducted by phone.
King County jurors in high-risk groups for contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus — including pregnant women, people with underlying medical conditions and people age 60 or older — were told earlier this week they weren’t required to report for jury duty.
Rogers’ order notes about 200 prospective jurors respond to summonses every Monday through Wednesday at the courthouse in downtown Seattle, with another 150 appearing on those days at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.
“They sit together and wait in each courthouse in one room. They are later called for trials, where they take elevators together in groups of between four and eight people, line up single file in a hallway, and then (are) brought into court,” says Rogers’ order.
During questioning by attorneys, 35 to 50 jurors sit closer together than social-distancing recommendations from public health officials allow, for three to to eight hours at a time. During trials, 12 to 14 jurors also sit close to each other and gather in a small room during breaks and deliberations, according to the order.
“Social distancing during jury selection and jury trials is nearly impossible,” Rogers’ order says, noting there are 10 to 30 trials usually going on between the two courthouses.
The order acknowledges that criminal defendants have a right to a speedy trial but says the danger of the virus is too great.
“For criminal cases, the Court finds that as of March 13, 2020, this serious danger posed by the virus is good cause to continue criminal jury trials. It constitutes an unavoidable circumstance beyond the control of the court and the parties,” says Rogers’ order.
Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, wrote in an email statement that she’s also concerned about the safety of incarcerated people awaiting trial and public defenders, who work in crowded courtrooms and are unable to comply with social distancing. She urged the court to cancel all out-of-custody hearings for six weeks and to release all those being held on nonviolent misdemeanor charges and those serving criminal sentences in jail, the statement says.
She noted some people awaiting trial will ultimately be acquitted of criminal charges and for those people, “this delay becomes an ever longer wrongful incarceration.”
Weiss’ order also references an inadequate spectrum of jurors available to hear cases and the effect of public-health recommendations on the ability of attorneys and court staff to show up to court.
“The Court further finds that the ends of justice served by continuing these cases (to later dates) outweighs the defendant’s right to a speedy trial,” says the order.