The federal court covering Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., is not likely to hold criminal jury trials until next year due to the coronavirus pandemic, a judge said in citing an inability to keep trials socially distant and the potential difficulty of assembling a jury.
John C. Coughenour, a senior judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, conveyed the sentiment in a letter to counsel published May 27.
“It is the considered view of most judges in the Western District of Washington that criminal jury trials are not likely to resume prior to 2021 and that civil trials will resume later than that,” Coughenour said.
He said that his own courtroom can’t be configured “for trial while complying with the social distancing guidelines promulgated by local and national health officials” and that he isn’t “confident that potential jurors will (or should) respond to subpoenas before they are convinced that it is safe to do so.”
The letter, which is not the last word on the subject in Washington state, comes as many other federal courts across the country make preparations to start socially distant jury trials after the pandemic disrupted their operations. Those measures include increased sanitation, separating jurors in different rooms, and keeping six feet of separation between people in the same room.
The Seattle and Tacoma areas were hit early and hard by the virus, which forced the court to lead the way in cutting back in-person proceedings.
Western Washington Chief Judge Ricardo S. Martinez told Bloomberg Law in an interview that Coughenour’s timetable isn’t the official position of the court, and that things still could fall into place by year’s end. But nothing’s guaranteed as uncertainty around the virus still predominates.
The hope is to have the courts reopen in August and have chamber staff and judges coming back in in a phased approach, Martinez said. If everything goes according to plan, he said jury trials might be able to start in September. Some proceedings are already underway, and Martinez said the court is preparing to start a civil bench trial next week.
“We’re doing everything possible to get jury trials rolling later this year,” Martinez said. But he added that Coughenour’s assessment could also be right due to the uncertainty of the virus impact.
Efforts to restart jury trials include surveying members of two suspended grand juries to see what the court can do to make it easier for them to return and exploring options like virtual jury selection.
In an interview with Bloomberg Law, Coughenour said the motivation behind the letter, which was sent to counsel in all cases before him, was to move things along and answer questions from lawyers about when jury trails might start.
Coughenour said the letter was a way to say to the lawyers “as much as we know, we don’t really know when we’re going to be able to start jury trials but here’s the best thinking right now.”
The court is also short staffed. It has only two of its seven judgeships filled and expects a backlog of cases following the virus. Martinez told Bloomberg Law in April that he doesn’t expect those seats, which currently don’t have a nominee in the pipeline in the U.S. Senate, to get filled until 2021 at the earliest.
But other regions hit hard by the virus are among those starting some operations back up. That includes New York state courts, which earlier this month started resuming in-court operations in its less populous regions and recently expanded that to areas closer to New York City.