Jury trials and almost all in-person court hearings in Washington have been suspended in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, by order of the state Supreme Court.
Under the emergency rules signed Wednesday by Chief Justice Debra L. Stephens, civil and criminal hearings are delayed until April 24, with exceptions for emergencies and hearings that could lead to a defendant’s release in the next 30 days.
Bail hearings must be scheduled within five days if a defendant is within an at-risk group — such as senior citizens, or those with an underlying medical condition where COVID-19 could easily prove fatal — as long as victims are allowed to participate in the hearing.
The goal is to prevent the spread of a new coronavirus that has sickened hundreds in Washington, causing dozens of deaths.
The proposal was submitted by Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell, the chair of a new Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys COVID-19 committee, in an agreement reached with the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Washington Defender Association.
“At this time of unprecedented crisis,” Cornell wrote to the chief justice, “collaboration among criminal justice stakeholders is essential to both protecting everyone in our community and safeguarding the integrity of the criminal justice system.”
All pending criminal cases where the defendant is not jailed will be delayed until at least April 24. The same goes for all civil matters.
Emergency court hearings must be conducted by phone, video or some other method that does not require in-person attendance, unless that’s impossible. According to the order, hearings must be recorded, with the recording preserved for the record.
Trials already in progress are left to the discretion of the judge. If the courtroom offers enough space for everyone to practice strict social distancing, the case could still go forward.
A first appearance, arraignment, change of plea, criminal motion or sentencing may still be heard, at the discretion of the judge, if the defendant is in custody. Bench warrants can still be issued for violating bail conditions. But courts are now advised against issuing those warrants during the outbreak “unless necessary for the immediate preservation of public or individual safety.”
Many Superior and District courts had already begun taking steps to trim the number of in-person court hearings and to keep obviously sick people out of courtrooms. Courthouses have not been totally shut down.
“However,” the order says, “the crisis is increasing daily and it may become necessary for courts to close, suspend in-building operations or otherwise significantly modify their operations, and … the increasingly aggressive spread of COVID-19 across Washington requires a uniform, coordinated response from Washington courts to prevent further outbreak and to maintain consistent and equitable access to justice.”
The order must be followed across the state.
The proposal cited Gov. Jay Inslee’s ban on gatherings of 50 people or more due to COVID-19; President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency; and the fact that “many court facilities in Washington are ill-equipped to effectively comply with social distancing and other public health requirements.”
Earlier this week, the state Supreme Court barred the public from the Temple of Justice building in Olympia until May 5.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Ricardo Martinez signed an order Tuesday closing federal courthouses to the public in Seattle and Tacoma, and with few exceptions, federal civil and criminal cases in Western Washington are set to be delayed until at least June 1.
In the order, Judge Martinez wrote that “the ends of justice served by ordering the continuances outweigh the best interests of the public and any defendant’s right to a speedy trial, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §3161(h)(7)(A).”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.