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Coronavirus cases, crisis standards prompt postponement of north Idaho jury trials

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Courtesy of Bonner County
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Jury trials in five north Idaho counties are suspended through December 17 because of the region’s high coronavirus case rates and a “crisis standards of care” designation.

The order signed Friday by Administrative Court Judge Rich Christensen applies to five counties in Idaho’s First Judicial District: Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai and Shoshone. The order confirms the suspension and requires people doing business at any of the courthouses in the district to wear a mask and maintain a separation of six feet from other people.

The Idaho Supreme Court said last month trials could be suspended when counties hit 25 percent Covid case rates or when hospitals are under crisis standards of care. Both are true in the Panhandle area.

“[Court administrators] are being real cautious about Covid positivity rates. They don’t want to bring in a bunch of jurors in a tight space,” Pete Barnes, jury commissioner for Kootenai County, said.

Suspending jury trials in deference to Covid caseloads is not new in Idaho. The state’s court system last year quickly moved to make many of its functions remote. Accordingly, much of the business conducted by courts in northern Idaho will go on.

“Trials are a small piece – they’re a very significant piece – but they are a small piece of what the courts do,” said Nate Poppino, communications manager for Idaho’s Administrative Office of Courts. “The majority of cases do not actually reach trial. They end through other means. And so there’s a lot the work of the courts that, regardless of these holds, has been able to proceed throughout, and that continues to be the case now.”

Barnes said the suspension means six trials in Kootenai County will be postponed. Jurors that were selected for those trials will be dismissed and he’ll have to begin from scratch to pick all-new juries when the trials are re-scheduled.

“It all starts over,” Barnes said. “We move forward and start over with new jurors. We mail out two to three hundred summons each week for these panels.”

Jurors whose trials have now been suspended will get credit and will roll off the jury summons list for two years, Barnes said. For his office, the periodic trial suspensions are disruptive.

“We still have to prepare to have a trial,” Barnes said. “We’re doing the paperwork, we’re doing the data entry, we’re mailing out the summons, we’re getting jurors ready. Then seven days before…things are getting cancelled. It’s just a repetitive process with no positive result at the end of it, at least for us.”

Poppino said the growing backlog of delayed cases has the court system’s attention.

“Throughout the pandemic, the number of pending cases that are not resolved in Idaho has risen,” Poppino said. “It’s not all clear what part of that could be attributed to steps or effects or trends [of the virus], but it’s something the court system has its eye on.”

Under guidance from the Idaho Supreme Court, the state's seven judicial districts have the authority to order trial suspensions and other measures. Barnes said decisions about whether or not to postpone jury trials are usually issued a week to ten days in advance of the scheduled court dates.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.