It has been all hands on deck at Lewis County courts since June 1 when they resumed their regular dockets and again began hearing cases in person.
To backtrack, on March 16 — when the severity of the coronavirus was just dawning on Americans — and in the days that would follow, restrictions were made to limit both the cases being allowed to continue and in what capacity those cases could be heard.
By March 20, the courts were no longer hearing in-person arguments. Criminal matters were by video only and domestic violence cases, civil cases, guardianship cases, child support cases and others were pushed back to May 5 or later.
Then the administrative work began.
“It has been absolutely nonstop as far as rescheduling all of the cases we have,” said Susie Palmateer, the Lewis County Superior Court administrator. “And it’s now creating a huge backlog of cases.”
From the Superior Court administration’s perspective, initially their main priority was managing a complicated court calendar. That became particularly exhausting as the coronavirus pandemic drew on because every time another general order was issued, thus pushing back the dates for when a specific kind of case could be heard, the rescheduling would begin.
“Any time a general order would come out that moved the dates back further we have to go through every docket and every case and do orders on everything to continue them … so it’s been unbelievably busy,” Palmateer said.
Sometimes it would lead to re-rescheduling.
This week, another general order came: jury trials, which some had already been rescheduled for July, were pushed back to Aug. 3.
Back to the drawing board for Palmateer.
Then on June 1 when the courts resumed their regular dockets and allowed in person appearances, superior court had another task to juggle — implementing and maintaining the safety procedures.
These responsibilities have largely been handed over to the bailiffs, who now essentially serve as hall monitors to ensure the public adheres to the regulations such as wearing a mask at all times and remaining socially distanced.
“That’s been a life saver, as far as helping manage the people coming in,” Palmateer said.
Bailiff Bob Dow, who works the front door and will hand out masks to people that don’t have one, said for the most part, there has been adequate cooperation to abide by the regulations from people entering the Law and Justice Center. He added that very few people have contested wearing a mask.
From his time working at the front door, there has only been one instance where a person refused to put a mask on. According to Dow, the man’s attorney came outside and convinced him to put the mask on.
“Are there people who don’t like it? Absolutely,” Dow said. “But we all have to live with it.”
June 1 was also when the floodgate was released and the courts along with the prosecutor’s office had to deal with the backlog of cases.
“The first (Thursday) we had 250 or 260 cases, we actually had to run the court calendar in two different court rooms just to give everyone enough time,” Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said.
He added that on a regular Thursday, which is the prosecutor’s office’s busiest day in superior court, there would usually be about 120 cases.
Meyer said that a combination or good coordination between his office and the courts, and bringing the entire staff back to the office a week in advance to prepare all of the paperwork was how they were able to pull it off.
“We are managing and it is going better than I thought,” Palmateer said.