Crime and public safety issues around the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle are causing potential jurors to decline to serve, making it more difficult to fill juries, several King County judges said Wednesday.
Public safety issues around the downtown courthouse, the seat of county government, have festered for years, but have been exacerbated during the pandemic, as downtown office workers largely stayed home and encampments in the area proliferated.
“Of particular concern for us is the amount of feedback we’re receiving from prospective jurors who are indicating that they’re unwilling to serve as jurors in our trials,” said King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi, the court’s assistant presiding judge. Jurors and witnesses, Oishi noted, are required to come to court.
“A lot of these folks who absolutely need to come to court or are compelled to come to court either are unable to safely access the court or, at minimum, they don’t believe that it’s safe to come to the courthouse,” Oishi told a committee of the Metropolitan King County Council.
Oishi said anxiety has been particularly high among people at the courthouse for the last several weeks, since a man was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in a courthouse restroom in late July.
King County District Court; which handles civil suits, misdemeanors and felony preliminary hearings, has 10 locations throughout the county, only one of which is in the downtown Seattle courthouse.
“We don’t have trouble getting jurors in other locations,” said District Court Judge Susan Mahoney, the chief presiding judge of the court. “In fact, they will contact us and say, ‘Can I serve somewhere else?'”
Jury duty is not optional if you get a summons. And while judges do have the option of issuing a penalty, up to issuing a bench warrant, for jurors who opt out, they rarely, if ever, do.
Instead they try to nudge and cajole and put at ease potential jurors.
“It’s part hand-holding, part encouraging, it’s part just listening to expressions of fear, it’s part trying to provide clarity of how they could feel safe,” said Superior Court Judge Sean O’Donnell, the court’s chief criminal judge. “If they don’t come, the system collapses; because no juries, no justice system.”
Safety issues at the courthouse date back years. In 2019, a judge ordered the Third Avenue entrance of the courthouse to be closed because of safety and security concerns. The County Council subsequently approved $600,000 in emergency funding for sheriff’s deputies to provide security outside the courthouse, even though the downtown streets fall under the jurisdiction of Seattle police.
Seattle recently cleared a large homeless encampment at nearby City Hall Park after 33 judges wrote to the city’s parks superintendent asking for it to be shut down.
The park remains closed for cleaning, fenced off from public use.
“Once it opens up, what’s to prevent the scenario from returning to the status quo, because it’s an easy place to set up tents and for people to shelter?” O’Donnell said.
The city has set Oct. 12 as a target date for reopening the park, said Rachel Schulkin, a parks department spokesperson. Crews will be doing rodent control this week, reseeding grass next week and will then pressure-wash the park, Schulkin said.
“We will know as October 12 approaches if the park will be ready to reopen on that date,” Schulkin wrote.
County officials on Wednesday fretted over the park’s future, while acknowledging that it’s not a new problem.
Judges said that they’d talked to Seattle police who had essentially told them that they are unlikely to respond to the area unless there are urgent crime or safety concerns.
“Without a police presence or enforcement, people will quickly return and we’ll be right back where we were,” Mahoney said. “I would hate to see that work undone.”