Judiciary committee hears court updates, jury trial backlog concerns

Isabella Alves with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, from the Wyoming News Exchange

Judiciary committee hears court updates, jury trial backlog concerns


By Isabella Alves

Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Via Wyoming News Exchange


CHEYENNE – Wyoming’s top judge and some of his colleagues told members of the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee on Tuesday that the COVID-19 pandemic is almost certain to create a massive backlog of jury trials this fall.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Davis told lawmakers that with the recent Supreme Court order, which was adopted May 15, courts have suspended jury trials until Aug. 3 due to safety concerns with coronavirus. 

With the new orders, Davis said judges will need to create a new operating plan and submit it to the high court.

Guidelines for opening up court proceedings, excluding jury trials, aren’t to be implemented until judges submit an operating plan to the high court. These proceedings are still encouraged to be held remotely and to limit the number of people in a courtroom up to the judge’s discretion, according to Supreme Court documents.

At this time, the new order – which amends the March 18 order – still suspends in-person proceedings, except in instances to protect the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, emergency protection orders, emergency custody orders, temporary injunctive relief, emergency protection of the elderly or vulnerable, and other matters deemed an exception by judges, according to Supreme Court documents.

Hearings in Laramie County District Court are being held remotely through video and audio conferences.

All other matters are to be continued or rescheduled for a later date, according to Supreme Court documents. In instances where there must be in-person proceedings, courtrooms should be limited to attorneys, parties, witnesses, victims and essential court personnel.

Defendants in criminal cases have a right to trial by jury and the right to a speedy trial by jury, Davis said. The problem is with high-profile cases, there are situations where 60 people are called into a courtroom for jury selection – which makes it nearly impossible to maintain social distancing.

Then there’s the added challenge of having jurors sit within a jury box where they also can’t maintain a distance of six feet apart. Davis said the courts simply can’t have jury trials right now.

The current Wyoming law states that a criminal defendant’s speedy trial deadline is within 180 days of arraignment, which is when defendants enter their plea to the alleged crime, such as guilty or not guilty.

However, Davis said there’s exceptions to this deadline based on exceptional or emergent circumstances, such as this pandemic.

“We have to think about this: Jurors are not like citizens who decide to go out and get a haircut since the barber shops are open. That’s a choice for the citizen and the barber. Jurors are (required) to provide service to the state. Basically, we draft them,” Davis said.

He said courts should not and cannot force jurors to provide this service until the courts can provide adequate assurance that it’s safe.

At this time, Davis said Laramie County District Court judges are postponing 15 to 25 jury trials per month, which is going to be a problem for the future when courts open back up and the flood gates are released.

Laramie County District Court Judge Thomas Campbell said he just had to delay about 35 jury trials until August. He said judges will have months of catchup to do with jury trials after they’re allowed again.

Davis said the judiciary has “sort of a crisis” when it comes to the trial backlog that is piling up, and he doesn’t know how long it will take judges to catch back up to the “status quo” once trials are allowed again.

He said even if the court could get help from other judges, there are only so many courtrooms.

Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, said this is a significant constitutional issue that the Legislature might have to address because the judiciary could run out of money or experience judge shortages due to the backlog.

He said there is a committee of circuit and district court judges who worked together to come up with the court’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Campbell said fortunately, in his experience, judges already have a system in place to help each other out with cases and trials if there is a conflict or a judge is out sick. He said this method also could be used to help judges deal with the virus backlog.

He added judges usually set aside time to have one jury trial stack a month. But with the backlog, he said judges might have to set aside more time per month to dedicate to criminal trials.

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