After a year of COVID-19, courts are still virtual and could be for a while
Judge Michael O’Hara knows part of his job involves making unpopular decisions, and those surrounding COVID-19 have been no exception.
O’Hara, the 14th District judge overseeing Routt, Moffat and Grand counties, wrote an order in spring 2020 requiring courts to operate entirely virtual and postponing all jury trials to a later date when in-person proceedings could resume safely. This spring, O’Hara amended the order to allow jury trials but require masks and social distancing at all times while inside judicial facilities.
“I realize that some of this is not popular,” O’Hara said. “But I hope everything works out OK for people who are disregarding national advice.”
O’Hara has the New York Times’ COVID-19 map, which details vaccination rates, COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in each county across the U.S., pulled up on his computer at all times. The increasing case counts have made him deeply concerned about holding court in person, he said.
“Everything I read indicates things are not so good,” O’Hara said. “I continue to be really concerned about this for my staff and for the public.”
Because most people coming into the court are there because they legally have to be there, O’Hara said he feels responsible for making sure the court is as safe as it can possibly be, and he encourages most procedural hearings to be virtual.
“I have people who are very upset with me for having to wear a mask, and it’s hard,” O’Hara said. “I get it. I’ve spent many days in a courthouse wearing a mask for eight hours, and it’s tiring, but I’ve also received feedback that was positive and people thanking me for keeping these requirements in place.”
Nearly all Routt County Court hearings are still held virtually, and O’Hara estimated district court hearings are about half in person and half remote.
District Attorney Matt Karzen said he understands the need for following safety protocols and providing a virtual option, but he believes defendants in virtual court sometimes do not take the proceedings as seriously as they would if they were facing a judge in person.
“The main concern I’ve had is it has sort of enabled some feet dragging, and it’s left some failing to appear or failing to act with due diligence,” Karzen said. “If you’re going to do these virtual court calendars, you have to have a clear set of rules and enforce those rules clearly, or you lose the privilege of being able to appear remotely.”
Because jury trials were postponed for a year, Karzen said he saw many defendants refusing plea offers he considered fair and delaying trials, as no one knew when they would return.
“The court system across Colorado is now trying to play catch up,” O’Hara said. “If I were a criminal defendant, and I knew a case would never go to trial, my motivation might be reduced to resolve it for some negative consequences.”
Kris Hammond, a Steamboat Springs defense attorney with Klauzer and Tremaine, LLC, said he had nine jury trials in 2019, which was slightly higher than average. Because trials were not occurring for most of 2020, Hammond said he is facing an enormous backlog in 2021.
O’Hara said he has a trial scheduled almost every day starting next week and going into June 2022.
Because much of Routt County is rural, Karzen said virtual proceedings can be beneficial for defendants who live in more remote parts of the county and do not want to drive into Steamboat, where the courthouse is located.
“It’s very convenient,” said Jon Sarche, deputy public information officer with the Colorado Judicial Department. “You’ve got an automatic avenue of public access, and I think that’s also a very big pro.”
Hammond said his clients have not expressed any concerns over fairness of virtual proceedings, but he did say he noticed a pattern of defendants not treating proceedings as seriously as they did with in-person court.
“I think that what is lost, for lack of better word, is the theater of actually having to go to court and be present and be in the courtroom setting,” Hammond said. “Courtrooms are designed to be somber, serious places, where serious business is done.”
O’Hara said he does not have a timeline for when the court might return to full in-person proceedings. He will be meeting with judges from all three counties soon to discuss increasing restrictions.
“I think a lot of the predictions are kind of dire, and I would like to see a lot more people in our communities get vaccinated,” O’Hara said. “I think until that happens, we’re going to see a lot of these struggles.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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Routt County voters will have the option to elect new school board members, city and town council members and choose whether or not to support three state ballot initiatives in the Nov. 2 election.