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Washington State Supreme Court

The Washington State Supreme Court filed a sweeping order Wednesday night directing courts statewide to take uniform action to restrict interaction in courthouses during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Many courthouses, according to the order, aren't equipped to follow social distancing and other public health guidance, which jeopardizes the health of court-goers and legal professionals.

The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is thought to spread from person-to-person, between people who are within about 6 feet of each other, through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Gov. Jay Inslee recently restricted gatherings statewide to fewer than 50 people, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends limiting gatherings to 10 people or fewer.

Before the order, many courts had implemented a variety of restrictions of their own. In Thurston County, for example, each local court had announced its own set of plans.

Now, courts will follow the same rules. The order went into effect immediately and impacts every court in the state, according to Administrative Office of the Courts spokesperson Lorrine Thompson.

Under the order, all trials not already in progress and most in-person court proceedings are delayed until at least April 24.

"All in-person court proceedings throughout Washington courts are suspended until after April 24, with the exception of those that are strictly necessary to protect public and personal safety," a summary on the Washington Courts Facebook page reads. "Emergency matters must be heard by telephone, video or other means that do not require in-person attendance."

Some hearings for defendants who are in custody will be delayed, but arraignment hearings, plea hearings, and sentencing hearings won't be, according to the order.

For those defendants, the court is required to prioritize motions for pretrial release and modifying bail, along with plea and sentencing hearings that would likely result in releasing the defendant from jail within 30 days.

The order also changes procedures around releasing defendants from jail pretrial.

One such change: Courts should now schedule hearings of motions for pretrial release for defendants who are part of an at-risk population -- as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control -- within five days.

Situations where courts can issue bench warrants -- warrants for violating a court rule, such as not showing up for a hearing -- are limited under the order. Bench warrants can now be issued when defendants violate conditions of their release, but not for failure to appear for court hearings and meetings "unless necessary for the immediate preservation of public or individual safety."

Courts can still enter no-contact orders where there's probable cause for a domestic violence, stalking, harassment, or sex offense. Those orders can be served via mail.

Four Supreme Court justices -- Justices Mary Yu, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Steven Gonzalez, and Raquel Montoya-Lewis -- dissented in the order, taking issue with aspects of the directives on bench warrants and pretrial release conditions.

In part, the dissenting justices wrote that bench warrants in these circumstances should require a specific finding that the alleged violation poses a "serious threat to public safety."

"While we have different views on how best to respond to this crisis, we all agree that it requires significant changes to the way we operate, not just in our courts but across society," Chief Justice Stephens said. "Courts are facing unprecedented challenges in trying to administer justice and protect individual rights while keeping our communities safe, and I believe this order can help courts better meet those challenges."

Criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors -- natural courtroom adversaries -- collaborated to submit an agreed proposed order to the state Supreme Court earlier in the day Wednesday, according to correspondence forwarded to The Olympian.

"I want to fully recognize and acknowledge our prosecutor colleagues for recognizing the need for swift action to ensure the safe functioning of our criminal justice system and emphasize that this was a collaborative effort," Amy Muth, chair of the COVID-19 Taskforce for the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (WACDL) and Washington Defender Association (WDA), wrote in an email to The Olympian Wednesday.

After the order was filed, Muth, who's a private Seattle criminal defense attorney, said in a phone interview that she had never been prouder to be part of the legal profession.

"I am humbled and so proud to practice in a state where it was possible to do this within 48 hours," Muth said. "We saved lives today, we should all take great pride and satisfaction in knowing that we live in a state where our criminal justice community and our Washington Supreme Court values the people over procedure."

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