Jury trials suspended due to COVID surge

Gavin Johnson, Staff Reporter

Jury trials in the Kittitas County Lower District Courts have been suspended until Jan. 31 due to a spike in coronavirus cases and wanting to “push the curve down,” according to a press release from the Kittitas County District Court. 

“While this has been a very difficult decision to make, it is the right decision to take based on the extraordinary circumstances we face,” the press release said.

The Lower Kittitas County District Court Presiding Judge Paul R. Sander said the decision was made by a group of presiding judges after receiving advice from the health department.

“We passed the threshold, which is 500 positive cases per 100,000,” Sander said.

Courts will remain open during normal business hours, according to the press release.

The courts currently have COVID-19 restrictions in place, such as requiring masks and arranging courtrooms so that individuals are placed at least six feet apart whenever possible.

Masks are provided at the courthouse for those that may not have one, including surgical masks and KN95 masks.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Kittitas County courts have suspended jury trials on five occasions, three of which by state-level guidance. Since September of 2021, local guidance has been responsible for the suspensions.

During the pandemic, there have been efforts by the courts to keep the justice system safe for those who may be vulnerable to COVID-19. These efforts include streaming in jurys using video calling software Webex, providing options for remote document signing and maintaining basic masking and distancing protocols.

According to the Lower Kittitas County District Court’s COVID-19 procedures, those who experience COVID-19 symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 are advised not to enter the courthouse. Those who have a case being heard, attorneys and supporters of the parties whose case is being heard are allowed in the courthouse.

The courts still allow for public viewing of trials online and in-person. However, only individuals who are a part of the same household of those whose case is being heard may attend in-person.

“The hardest thing about remote trials has been the issue of signing documents,” Sander said. 

The software the courts had purchased for remote document signing proved to be too expensive for the small number of trials held in the Lower District Court, according to Sander.

Air filtration has been an issue for the courts as well. A portable air filter was purchased for use in the windowless courtrooms, but proved to be too loud for trials, according to Sander.

The courts aim to reopen next month, or when the positive COVID-19 case rate is below at least 500 per 100,000 of the population.