Courts during COVID: Ninth Judicial District legal community navigates challenges of pandemic
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Jury trials could soon begin again in the Ninth Judicial District, which includes Garfield County, after a months-long hiatus because of the pandemic, the district’s chief judge said.
But with social distancing, capacity limitations and a backlog of trials created by months without trials by jury, it could be a slow road back to normal.
“We have a plan for restarting jury trials that mirrors another being used around the state,” Chief Judge James Boyd said. “But the greatest challenge facing the Ninth District in the next year is implementing that plan and clearing our considerable backlog.”
As jury trials return, the first few will be limited to 6-person juries, which can be used in trials for non-felony offenses, he explained. But as soon as October, the district plans to start conducting felony trials again with 12-person juries.
“I’ve concluded that — at least in the beginning — we can only conduct one jury trial at a time per courthouse,” said Boyd, who co-authored the district’s post-pandemic jury trial plan.
For the District Attorney’s Office, the lack of jury trials has been a big disruption, and the district’s return to jury trials raises a few additional questions.
“We haven’t had a criminal jury trial since March,” Deputy District Attorney Ben Sollars said. “There’s an old adage: Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Sollars said the jury trials set for court during the pandemic were ruled as mistried, allowing the cases to be continued at a later date. Those rulings could conflict with a person’s constitutional right to a swift trial, he said.
“It creates the question: If you’re continuing things beyond that speedy trial time frame, is that going to survive in an appellate court,” Sollars said, adding little-to-no precedent exists for conducting court during a pandemic.
While jury trials were delayed, the court system did not grind to a complete halt.
Like many industries, courts cleared the social-distancing hurdle by leaping into the realm of virtual conferencing.
“It all came up so quickly that it really created a challenge as to how to move forward with any court operations,” Boyd said. “We did as much as we could to not have people assembling face-to-face.”
The courts started using Cisco Webex, a video conferencing platform, to conduct certain functions.
Sollars said people responded quickly to the software.
“Early on, we didn’t have the foresight to know we’d be in a pandemic, so a lot of summons were responded to in person,” he recalled. “Once the court started utilizing Webex, the personal appearance numbers went down drastically.”
Webex was not a silver bullet, however. Not everyone had access to virtual conferencing-capable devices or internet connections, so courtroom attendance was not entirely eliminated.
Boyd said to reduce the risk of infection for those few who did still show up in court, the district implemented rules barring people with symptoms of COVID-19 from entering the building. Additionally, court rooms are taped off to provide attendees with clear visual references for staying 6 feet apart and require face masks.
“These are not guidelines we’re dreaming up on our own,” Boyd said. “We are trying to follow guidance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as well as localities with more restrictive guidelines.”
Failure to appear
During the height of the pandemic, the district issued significantly less Failure-to-Appear warrants, but by July, the warrants were trending upward, according to data provided by the Colorado State Court Administrator’s Office.
In January, the Ninth Judicial District issued 156 failure-to-appear warrants in Garfield County and 91 were issued in February. During March, the district issued 73 and only 33 failure-to-appear warrants were issued throughout the County in April.
May and June saw a slow rise in failure-to-appear warrants issued and by July, the district returned to pre-pandemic numbers with 139 failure-to-appear warrants issued in Garfield County.
“There is certainly a correlation between the pandemic and the failure-to-appear numbers,” Sollars said. “But, I don’t know if it’s as simple as to say it’s X, Y or Z causing those trends.”
The ability for some people to attend virtually could be a contributing factor to the lower numbers, he said.
Previously, out-of-state visitors charged with a crime would need to make arrangements to return for a court date, but with Webex, they might only need to take a couple hours out of their day and attend from the comfort of their home.
Another factor could be a pre-trial supervision program, part of which sends texts reminding defendants about their court dates. Sollars said the program rolled out in January.
Lastly, he said the courts might be partially responsible for the downward trend.
“I also do think the courts have been more lenient to individuals who haven’t shown up,” Sollars said. “Whatever the reason might be, I think the courts are less likely to issue warrants.”
Boyd said even with the call reminder program and virtual attendance, beyond the pandemic, failure-to-appear warrants could continue to rise.
“The criminal case load in Pitkin and Garfield counties, and within the Ninth Judicial District generally, has gone up quite a lot in the last 4-5 years,” he said. “The future of failure-to-appears will depend on the volume of criminal case filings.”
Deputy State Public Defender Scott Troxell declined to be interviewed for this story.