Hundreds of cases have backlogged in the Lewis County court system since jury trials were first suspended in March due to COVID-19 restrictions, but Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer is confident that each case will have its day in court once jury trials resume.
“We want to get these cases through in a timely manner because everyone deserves that,” Meyer said.
Aside from a brief period of reopening in October, jury trials have been on hold in Lewis County Superior Court since March 2020. The most recent general order, dated Dec. 24, puts all civil and criminal jury trials on hold through at least Feb. 28.
Bench trials — trials where a judge hears a case and makes a decision without a jury — are still being held. Jury trials were put on hold based on recommendations from the Lewis County Public Health and Social Services and guidance from the Washington State Supreme Court, according to a Lewis County general order.
The Washington State Supreme Court lifted its own jury trial suspension in a revised order issued Oct. 13, but instructed judicial officers to use their own discretion when it comes to scheduling trial dates and extending temporary protection orders. The Supreme Court also instructed judicial officers to continue allowing video for telephonic appearances “whenever appropriate,” and stated that all in-person appearances “must be conducted with strict observance of social distancing and other public health measures.”
Meyer said that the few weeks in October when Lewis County Superior Court reopened for jury trials gave valuable insight on how jury trials can proceed in Lewis County while observing social distancing measures.
“The court system, in conjunction with the entire building, did a great job with the system and following the guidelines,” he said.
Jury selection took place at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds, and Meyer said he was “pleasantly surprised” at the number of jurors who turned out. He acknowledged that juror availability could still be an issue moving forward due to citizens’ health concerns and concerns about taking time off of work to report for jury duty.
The biggest struggle the Lewis County Superior Court faced during the reopening in October, Meyer said, was figuring out how to effectively socially distance in the courtroom.
Lewis County Superior Court’s tentative solution was to move the jurors from the gallery out into the area where the public usually sits, but that leaves little space for members of the public to sit. The space needed for everyone who needs to be in the courtroom for a jury trial to effectively social distance left Lewis County Superior Court unable to hold more than one trial in the building at a time — significantly limiting the number of cases the court is able to get through in a day.
The court is looking at other possible locations to hold trials so they can hold more than one jury trial at a time, Meyer said, which does not pose a legal challenge as long as the location change is clearly advertised.
The suspension is officially categorized as an excluded period, meaning that the time spent waiting for a jury trial while trials are on hold doesn’t count. For example, Washington state law dictates that the court has 90 days from the date of arraignment to hold a jury trial — if a case was arraigned during the exclusion period, the 90-day countdown doesn’t start until trials resume March 1. That means it’s possible for a defendant to have now spent up to nine months waiting for their case to go to trial.
Given the circumstances, Meyer said that the courts have been “very good” with letting in-custody defendants argue conditions of release, so people don’t have to wait in jail for their case to make it to trial. He added that his office will prioritize in-custody cases and cases with victims, and then make a plan for dealing with the rest of the backlog from there.
With so many factors up in the air, attorneys may not know which cases they will be dealing with in a given day until the night before or the day of.
“It’s not the easiest way to do it, but it gets done,” Meyer said.
To handle the backlog, all criminal attorneys in the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office will be interchangeable on all cases, with the exception of sensitive or complex cases that require one attorney to follow it for the duration of the trial. Civil attorneys may also be brought in to handle criminal cases as needed, Meyer said.
“We will be ready for all of those (cases),” he added. “I mean, that’s our job.”