When will people get their day in court

Criminal and civil trials delayed longer due to COVID-19
COVID-19 has the court system in the Gem State backlogged, with some wondering when their cases will ever go to court.
Published: Jul. 31, 2020 at 8:48 AM MDT
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TWIN FALLS, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) -COVID-19 has the court system in the Gem State backlogged, with some wondering when their cases will ever go to court.

According to the State of Idaho Judicial branch, the number of cases with at least one jury trial hearing cancelled or rescheduled is 5,514 statewide. On July 24 the Supreme Court of Idaho ordered all criminal jury trial cases cancelled until September 14th and all civil jury trial cases halted until December 1, building upon an earlier order from April 22. But cases have been cancelled or rescheduled in Idaho since March due to COVID-19, causing a lot of issues for lawyers and their clients.

“They (clients) come to us for guidance and advice and legal help. . . they ask us a question such as when this can be resolved and expect to get a trial date, and we look at them and we can’t answer their questions,” said Chip Giles, lawyer for Telare Law.

Eric Wildman, administrative judge for the 5th Judicial District in Idaho, said he estimates his district has about 600 criminal and civil cases cancelled or rescheduled since April, more than 300 in Twin Falls County alone.

Wildman said what a couple of the judges are doing in the criminal cases is encouraging criminal mediation, and the courts are using senior judges to mediate the cases in felony cases, but it is purely voluntary. He said the judge can’t order it but they are encouraging it because the backlog is impacting everybody. He added that misdemeanor cases are completely different now.

“The supreme court just issued an order today that allows the magistrate to order misdemeanor cases to mediation,” said Wildman.

He also said the backlog has him “very concerned” partly because some lawyers clients have been sitting in jail for a length of time awaiting trial.

However, Giles said the delays and trial uncertainties have already started impacting some of his cases.

“We do a lot of injury victims, and they are taking a lesser amount for a settlement because the insurance company knows they can pay them less cause we can’t get to trial,” said Giles.

However the courts aren’t completely shut down. Judges and lawyers are still working, as other court proceedings are being held remotely through Zoom or other forms of video teleconferencing, but the April 22 order has allowed, “All trials on a petition to terminate parental rights and felony sentencing hearings in which the possible penalty includes a life sentence shall be held in person”.

But holding court proceedings remotely has caused some problems for the courts, said Wildman. He said sometimes during a Zoom meeting, “You will get somebody whose microphone isn’t working or there is a glitch in the bandwidth”.

Also according to the April 22 order, “Any party intending to offer documentary evidence during a hearing held remotely will provide the court and all parties a list of such exhibits and copies thereof at least seventy-two (72) hours before such hearing”.

But Giles said Zoom and other forms of video teleconferencing do have their benefits, like its more efficient and gives clients the opportunity to attend to court matters without having to take the day off from work.

“We have done so many hearings over video, over phone. I think the court will just realize that for smaller hearings you don’t have to come to the courthouse. Those can be done over the phone (video),” said Giles.

Wildman said before COVID-19 video teleconferencing was primary used for out-of-state witnesses and experts. It was not used as widely as it is now, and he too sees the benefits going forward. He also said currently people who don’t have access to video teleconferencing can make a request to the court to have their matter or testimony conducted in person.

When trials do resume people will be required to wear masks, social distance, and have temperatures checked daily. People over 65 can even request to be excused from jury duty, as by order of the July 24 Idaho Supreme Court order.

But Giles thinks COVID-19 will have a huge impact on jurors when trials resume, as many people didn’t like participating in jury duty before COVID-19. He can even see jurors making rushed decisions during cases.

“My concern is with all these measures making the jury process more miserable for jurors, and them saying ‘this is horrible for them (party), but I (juror) have to get out of here’. . . I can see juries just wanting to get out of there, and I wouldn’t blame them one bit”.

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