COVID and the Courts A Look at Boulder County’s Response to the Pandemic, 0421 COBJ, Vol. 50, No. 4 Pg. 60

AuthorBY LAURENCE TRIP W. DEMUTH III
PositionVol. 50, 4 [Page 60]

50 Colo.Law. 60

COVID and the Courts A Look at Boulder County’s Response to the Pandemic

Vol. 50, No. 4 [Page 60]

Colorado Lawyer

April, 2021

BAR NEWS HIGHLIGHT

BY LAURENCE "TRIP" W. DEMUTH III

Our courthouses are norm ally full of people and bustling with activity. Every day, hundreds if not thou-sands of people file through them to respond to criminal charges, obtain restraining orders, and resolve civil disputes. The public fills the hallways, courtrooms, jury rooms, and courthouse lunchrooms. This includes people involved with both ongoing cases and die continual daily flow of new business. Most are not there voluntarily. Even prospective jurors are compelled to appear. There are also a host of people needed to handle the People's business. They include judges, clerks, courthouse administrators, court judicial assistants, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, community correction officials, and law enforcement.

So, what happened at our courthouses when COVID-19 started raging across the country? In Boulder County, stakeholders immediately got to work devising ways to respond quickly and creatively to the many challenges presented by the shape-shifting virus.

Initial Order Regarding COVID-19

On March 16, 2020, Chief Justice Coats of the Colorado Supreme Court issued an order to all Colorado state courts identifying what would and would not be suspended. The order stated, "the courts of this state can no longer continue normal operations and must for the immediate ensuing period operate on an emergency basis."1 It suspended all jury calls for non-criminal matters through April 3, 2020. It ordered that certain classes of other matters such as proceedings related to protective orders could not be suspended. And for all the remaining matters that were neither designated essential nor prohibited, the order stated, "the Chief Judges of the various districts will retain the discretion to determine whether those operations or matters are necessary to prevent a substantial risk of imminent financial hardship or imminent risk to the health, safety or welfare of any individual or community at large."2 Justice Coats also expressed his expectation that the chief judges "will make every effort to facilitate work from remote locations and to minimize or eliminate in-person proceedings and contact."3

This order presented numerous challenges to the courts. Very little was known at that time about the virus or how to control its spread. The public was still being told—at that time—that wearing masks would not provide protection. And yet, the courts had to continue certain proceedings. They would have to devise a way to conduct them safely, and they would need to determine whether the need for certain other proceedings outweighed the risk they created. The courts were also concerned with ensuring t hey did not undermine the public's confidence. Judges throughout the state recognized that they might undercut their credibility if their response to the crisis was inconsistent.

Immediate Response

Within days of the March 16 order, Boulder County's judicial officers broke into teams to triage the situation. There was a domestic relations team, a civil team, a criminal team, and a county court team. These teams worked together to determine how to address both the old and continuing flow of new business until the courthouse could be reopened.

Task forces including the justice system's stakeholders were quickly convened. In the criminal case context, the stakeholders included the offices of the District Attorney, Public Defender, Police Department, and Sheriff, which worked to determine how to conduct jury trials and what to do with criminal cases. These stakeholders met continuously and, even though their ethical and legal obligations were owed to different sides, they worked together with a high degree of collegiality to find a balance between the needs for public safety and public health. Many commented on how thankful they were to be working in a county with such a high level of professionalism and mutual respect and a willingness to work together to resolve problems. Because of this, they found a way to balance many of the competing concerns within one week of the March 16 order. Solutions included:

■ revised arrest policies,

■ revised holding policies,

■ adjustments to bond procedures,

■ new...

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