Spokane Courts Adjust To Coronavirus

Mar 17, 2020

The Spokane County Superior Court has adopted ways to reduce human contact in courtrooms and move more proceedings to phone.
Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR

The coronavirus is interrupting life in all parts of the Inland Northwest. That’s also true in Spokane County’s Superior Court system. Its judges this week have adopted changes that allow some court business to continue, but without the rushes of attorneys and defendants.

Superior Court Presiding Judge Harold Clarke says the challenge is to cycle people in and out of courtrooms, some of them very small, and keep everyone, from attorneys to staff to defendants, healthy.

“We’ve cancelled jury trials, so we’re not gathering jurors together for jury orientation or jury service. We’ve cancelled those until at least April 27. And then we’ve taken our larger dockets and tried to break those down and we’ve asked a lot of our proceedings to occur by phone," Clarke said.

But Clarke admits not everything in the court system can be done by phone.

“Particularly with our in-custody defendant cases, our criminal cases. Some of those are very difficult. They have to be done in person," he said.

And when Clarke and his peers preside over in-person proceedings, they will balance the number of people in the courtrooms, keeping to a maximum of 10 or so.

By pushing back some of the jury trials, there are questions about whether defendants will get timely hearings of their cases. Clarke says the Supreme Court has issued an order allowing his court to suspend the rules in that area.

“What we have done is put together an order that continues these jury trials and these criminal trials out. It’s our interpretation of the rules that the speedy trial clock will be suspended until April 27 unless we sign a new order before then," Clarke said.

Meanwhile, County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald has adjusted the way his office does business.  He says his staff will limit the number of people in his office at one time, practice a six-foot social distance area with their customers and do regular cleaning of the lobby and items, such as stamps, that are used by multiple people.