With the omicron variant of the coronavirus still raging in King County, Superior Court Presiding Judge Patrick Oishi on Wednesday issued an emergency order to extend a suspension of the start of new criminal trials for another four weeks in an effort to protect jurors, witnesses, staff and other court visitors from becoming infected.

Oishi took over as presiding judge on Jan. 1 and will serve in that position for one year. His predecessor, Judge Jim Rogers, issued an emergency order on Dec. 28 suspending the start of new criminal trials through Friday.

Without Oishi’s emergency order, new criminal trials could have begun being scheduled on Tuesday, after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday Monday. His order covers the period from Tuesday through end of business Feb. 11.

Oishi’s emergency order says most civil trials shall be conducted remotely, but some in-person, civil court proceedings can be held with prior court approval, especially those cases currently underway. Oishi’s order also allows for in-person, juvenile criminal bench trials to be conducted at the discretion of the juvenile court’s chief judge.

All trials currently underway shall be allowed to continue through completion, the order says.

The court’s daily calendar shows that there is currently one murder trial and a handful of civil trials currently in progress.

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At the time of Rogers’ Dec. 28 emergency order, Public Health – Seattle & King County reported a 195% increase in coronavirus cases and a 58% increase in hospitalizations across the county.

Oishi’s order, also citing information from public health officials, reports a 109% increase in coronavirus cases and a 102% increase in hospitalizations in the county over the past seven days.

Both the vaccinated and unvaccinated must be allowed access to the court, which has the responsibility “to keep all people who enter the courthouse safe,” says the order. Everyone who goes to the courthouse is required to wear a mask.

Like Rogers’ earlier order, Oishi’s emergency order notes that King County Superior Court adopted widespread use of video and telephonic technologies, resulting in completion of more than 1,000 remote bench trials and more than 300 jury trials since the start of the pandemic. That number includes 190 criminal trials — which must be held in person for security reasons and to maintain chain-of-custody of items of evidence — and 110 civil trials, with 70 of them conducted remotely.

Voir dire, the process where attorneys question prospective jurors before seating a jury, has been conducted virtually for all trials, allowing for trials to proceed smoothly, the order says.

Since the start of the pandemic, criminal trials will have been put on hold for a combined 10½ months by the time Oishi’s emergency order expires in mid-February. The pandemic-driven court slowdown has led to a backlog of approximately 6,000 adult felony cases, double the number typically awaiting resolution, with more than 250 murder cases yet to go to trial, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said last week.