Due to the need for social distancing in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Washington State courts have needed to restructure their normal operational procedures until vaccines or effective treatments become a viable option. But, even once these things are available, it is likely that the experience inside the courtroom for clients, attorneys, judges, and staff, will be different from pre-pandemic conditions. Most courthouses have been closed to normal proceedings since March of 2020. With summer fast approaching reopening is imminent, yet no unified system is in place to provide a specific way forward. Each jurisdiction must choose the opening procedure it sees as the safest and most suitable for itself.
Washington State Courts and Covid-19
Washington has been in a state of emergency since February 29, 2020 because of Covid-19’s pervasive spread. The courts responded to Governor Inslee’s declaration, scrambling keep the necessary activities going and to do so in a way that followed the new guidelines of the emergency. Unsurprisingly, the first few weeks were chaotic. Each jurisdiction had a different approach to how they were going to go forward while protecting those scheduled to participate in upcoming hearings. Ultimately, Governor Inslee moved to a full “stay at home” order which closed all non-essential businesses and forbade public gatherings. After this, the courts had no choice but to stop most of their normal, in-person activity, with a few exceptions for dangerous or urgent matters. All out of custody criminal matters – pretrials, dispositions, motions, and jury trials – were cancelled for the foreseeable future.
Covid-19 Order of the Washington Supreme Court
To create a more unified response from each jurisdiction and to protect public safety, the Washington State Supreme Court issued a series of orders and guidelines which were to remain in effect while the “stay at home” order was active, until June 1, 2020. They had the following requirements:
- All criminal jury trials were suspended until at least July 6, 2020
- Out of custody, in person hearings, were to be reset until after June 1, 2020
- Certain status conferences, motions or agreed order not requiring in-person attendance could be held via phone or video conferencing
- Out of custody arraignment dates for cases filed up until July 3, 2020, could be delayed by 45 days from the filing of charges
- No contact orders stemming from criminal charges can be order ex parte, in the absence of the defendant, upon a finding of probable cause.
- Speedy trial expiration dates toll and all time until September 1, 2020, is an excluded period
- Bench warrants shall not issue for failing to appear for in-person hearings
Covid-19 Courtroom Changes Moving Forward
As Washington emerges slowly from mandatory statewide closures, it is doubtful that the Supreme Court will draft a further order to each jurisdiction. It is more likely that each court will again be in charge of its own post-lockdown safety procedures based on their own unique operations. There will likely be significant differences from court to court.
The following pages will attempt to lay out each jurisdiction’s new policies as they become available so that this vital information is easily available should a visit to a courthouse be needed in this post-lockdown period. It’s possible the rules will change as the courts find they need to adapt, so check back often for updates before making an appearance to know what to expect upon arrival.