July 23, 2021
Local courts work to catch up on COVID-backlog delays in delivering justice
Matt Benoit

With plexiglass screens, air purifying systems, hand sanitizer and other COVID-prevention means in place, a Whatcom County courtroom is ready for an in-person trial. Courts at every level in the county are working at catching up on a backlog of cases caused by the pandemic shutdown. (Superior Court photo courtesy Whatcom County Executive’s Office)

July 23, 2021
Local courts work to catch up on COVID-backlog delays in delivering justice
Matt Benoit

share:

With the reopening of Bellingham Municipal Court for some in-person hearings on July 13, the local court system is trying to regain the flow of delivering justice that it held prior to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. 

This is occurring differently, however, at each level of the court system. 

Bellingham lawyer Adrian Martinez Madrone is a private criminal defense attorney who set foot in a courtroom just two weeks ago for the first time in over a year. He said he’s seeing backlogs at every level of the court system in which he works. 

This is especially true at the municipal level, where personnel issues have led to additional delays, Madrone said. 

As an example of the current situation, Madrone notes that a municipal case’s initial hearing would be followed by a subsequent hearing in about six weeks. Now, Madrone says those second hearings are being set up to 24 weeks later. 

“That’s an exceptionally long delay for something like a DUI case, to go from arraignment hearing to the next scheduled court hearing,” he said. “Moving forward, it does seem like it’s going to be very challenging.”

In-person resumed — for some

Darlene Peterson, Municipal Court administrator, was unable to provide Salish Current with specific caseload numbers due to staffing limitations. However, she said criminal defendants in custody are not having cases delayed due to their prioritization, and there is no backlog with those particular cases. 

The resumption of in-person hearings for the court specifically focuses on criminal defendants who are not in custody, and Peterson said the court is still allowing telephonic hearings when requested. 

Significant backlogs remain for things like traffic infraction and parking hearings, she added, as well as hundreds of bench warrant cases for defendants who don’t pose a community safety risk. The bench warrant stoppage was ordered by the Washington State Supreme Court in March 2020, and to date hasn’t been rescinded, Peterson said. 

Madrone said it is too early to say whether the move to in-person hearings will actually help the court’s backlog.

“The attorneys on each side … who are handling those cases in the Municipal Court are having to put some extra work and creative effort into resolving cases and maybe approaching things a little bit differently than normal,” he said. “We have to work harder to try to resolve cases between us and not be able to just depend on a court hearing coming up that’s going to push case settling.”

While no caseload numbers were available to Salish Current at the Whatcom County District Court level, the retirement of Judge David M. Grant on July 1 leaves a vacancy yet to be filled by the Whatcom County Council. Currently, the court’s workload is in the hands of two other judicial officers and pro tem judges called in at the presiding judge’s discretion, said court administrator Bruce Van Glubt. 

At the Superior Court level, criminal jury trials are being conducted one at a time after their resumption in April. While no numbers related to a backlog were available to Salish Current, the number of Superior Court cases filed in the first six months of 2021 are about 900 less than were filed through the first six months of 2019, and about 100 less than the same period in 2020. 

Justice with a mask

In a courthouse with four courtrooms, the reason for the slow resumption of criminal jury trials has much to do with regulations around the juries themselves. 

State Labor and Industries guidelines provide worker’s compensation to jurors if they’re injured during jury duty, and this includes if they fall ill. As a result of COVID-19, health-based guidelines have limited the amount of space the court has to conduct jury-based trials, needing to space each masked juror six feet apart from one another, said Robert Olson, presiding judge of the Whatcom County Superior Court. 

Impartially selecting the court’s 12-person juries means the court cannot ask potential jurors about their vaccination status, and thus must require all to abide by guidelines, Olson added. While distancing limitations will likely soon be ended, Olson said masking for jury trials will likely remain until L&I guidelines state unvaccinated people don’t need them. 

Currently, Olson said the court is using the county council chambers to hold jury selections, bringing in limited amounts of people at a time and, overall, selecting jurors from a smaller than usual pool.

“It’s quite an ordeal, to be able to select a jury under those circumstances,” Olson said.

For trials, the building’s two largest courtrooms are being used. Jurors enter the trial courtroom and are spaced apart on courtroom benches. Additional space is available for members of the press and public, but if too many people are present, those members are sent to an unused courtroom to continue public viewing via video, Olson said. 

If there is an objection during the trial, or the jury needs to leave for any reason, Olson said the group is taken to the other large courtroom to maintain social distancing and deliberate.   

Originally, the Superior Court planned to restart jury trials in November, but it did not happen, as COVID case counts rose again, Olson said. Even without jury trials and with a growing backlog, Olson added that some cases resolved on their own during the trial stoppage, either through deferrals, plea deals or dismissals. Many of the resolutions happened after the court published a trial prioritization calendar, Olson said, suggesting that merely having a trial date helps the defense and prosecution teams work things out.

“Once we started offering even just one jury trial cases seemed to start resolving more rapidly,” he said. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that, if every single case ever filed went to trial, you’d need to have 100 judges at least. Most cases are resolved by the parties.”

The future of justice

While Olson anticipates a future move to two jury trials further helping the court’s backlog, the fact remains that not as many cases that need to get to trial are currently getting there. 

As of last week, Madrone said the Superior Court’s trial call calendar had 75 cases on it. None of those were civil trials, which are not being held, though Olson said the court hopes to allow civil cases to be calendared again soon. 

Just how badly the pandemic exacerbated court backlogs, however, is hard to quantify, even for those involved in dealing with them on a daily basis. 

Madrone said a recent client could not afford bail and spent 14 months in the Whatcom County jail until his case was settled. It’s hard to say, he added, if the absence of COVID would have shortened his stay. 

Even before the pandemic, Olson said Superior Court would sometimes go a month or more without a trial, and typically didn’t hold more than two at a time. Many cases were resolved at the last minute before jury call-ins, he added. 

While Olson said he’s feeling more confident than he did in January regarding the court’s ability to provide justice in the community, Madrone is more uncertain. He said he recently settled a Superior Court case from 2017, and notes that it is usually the poorest in the community who are often stuck in the court system the longest. 

 “The levels of delay in Superior Court are very substantial,” Madrone said.

[Editor’s note: Work by the Whatcom County Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force has been continuing, and the task force is scheduled to present its annual report at the Bellingham City Council meeting on Monday, July 26. Programs range from increased use of electronic home monitoring, the availability and level of pretrial services, and participation in Drug Court and Mental Health Court. In response to nationwide protests against racial injustice in policing, several meetings have been devoted to reviewing the availability and benefits of implicit bias training for all individuals throughout the criminal justice system, jail statistics, the challenges of gathering accurate race and ethnicity statistics, and how to encourage more diverse populations to participate with the task force.]

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in the Salish Current. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.