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All jury trials in Idaho postponed until 2021 due to spike in COVID-19 cases

Crime Watch

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IDAHO FALLS — With a substantial rise of statewide COVID-19 cases, the Idaho Supreme Court is postponing all jury trials until next year.

An order signed by Chief Justice Roger Burdick states that both civil and criminal trials cannot begin in Idaho until Jan. 4, at the earliest. On Sept. 10, the state’s highest court set guidelines allowing trials to occur if counties had a low enough infection rate. The new order overrules those guidelines.

The order cites Idaho Department of Health and Welfare data showing that between Sept. 13 and Nov. 8, the incidence rate of COVID-19 across Idaho grew by 335%. The cases are also not just isolated to one area or county. Health Districts across Idaho have reported a general increase in the past seven to eight weeks.

The Supreme Court shared concern over how the virus is spread easily in group settings. Jury trials require the gathering of dozens if not a hundred or more potential jurors at the courthouse for selection.

“It is essential that the spread of the virus be slowed to protect public health and safety as well as safeguard the ability of Idaho’s healthcare professionals to manage the recent increase in cases,” Burdick wrote.

With the guidelines established in the September order, several jury trials have been canceled and postponed. According to the Supreme Court, with the cancellations, court staff have to scramble to notify summoned witnesses, attorneys, defendants and others involved in the cases. As of Nov. 6, only 5% of the counties in Idaho would be allowed to have a jury trial under the old guidelines.

“The number of cancellations of jury trials on a weekly basis is now creating significant interruptions in court business, as well as challenges and hardships for all jury trial participants,” Burdick wrote.

In addition to delaying jury trials, the Supreme Court encourages “robust participation” in alternative dispute resolutions like mediation. Burdick writes senior judges can be provided for such uses without cost to parties until Dec. 30.

As some court proceedings resume, social distancing measures are to be maintained in courtrooms, but a judge can allow attorneys to be closer than six feet to their clients, to allow for conversation.

The attendance inside the courtrooms will continue to be limited at the discretion of the judge. Due to limited space in courtrooms, most hearings will only allow people like court staff, witnesses, jurors, defendants and attorneys.

“If the public cannot be physically present in the courtroom, a publically accessible live audio and video stream of the proceedings must be provided,” an earlier order reads.

Witnesses testifying in court may also wear face shields or sit behind a transparent barrier like plexiglass. Masks should not be used by those testifying, “so facial expressions and the mouth can be observed while speaking.”

Anyone who refuses to comply with the orders can be barred from entering the courthouse and be held in contempt of court.