LA GRANDE — The Union County Courthouse lifted all face-covering, social distancing and capacity restrictions on June 30, bringing back mostly in-person trials — and a backlog of hearings.
“Being in court has power. This is a serious thing. It affects somebody’s life,” Michelle Leonard, trial court administrator for Union and Wallowa counties, said. “Having somebody remotely, I don’t think we have their full attention. It’s just too easy to be distracted.”
Hearings for the Union County Circuit Court, the 10th Judicial District of Oregon, are now being held almost exclusively in person, which is beneficial for several reasons. For example, presenting evidence or a witness testimonial is most effective when done in person, according to Leonard. The circuit court shares its two elected judges — Thomas Powers and Wes Williams — with Wallowa County.
Ryan Rodighiero, a deputy district attorney for Union County, said he is glad to resume in-person hearings because they allow all parties to express themselves clearly.
“It’s typically better in person. You get the body language, and we talk so much using our face, moving our hands,” Rodighiero said. “The way we shift in a chair, the way we look at an attorney, all of that is very helpful for understanding someone and their credibility.”
Trying to hold court in a pandemic
Last March, COVID-19 forced many businesses to fully shut their doors, but courthouses were an exception. Chief Justice of Oregon Martha Walters signed an order on March 16, 2020, ordering Oregon courtrooms to reduce in-person services, which caused many trials to be postponed and services to move online.
The Union County court system was better prepared for pandemic restrictions than many other courthouses, Leonard said.
“This courthouse made it possible for us to remain fully staffed on-site,” she said. “We had a few people who had to quarantine throughout the process, but for the most part, we’ve all been here.”
The Union County Courthouse was closed to the public for several months, before resuming in-person operations in a limited capacity. During this time, most hearings were held virtually.
According to Leonard, the increase in virtual appointments was manageable for Union County because it already offered remote options for hearings before the pandemic. She also credits the large size of the courtrooms with allowing in-person hearings to operate with social distancing rules.
However, the transition was far from seamless.
“It can be hard to follow those precautions, because you can’t always maintain 6 feet apart in the courtroom,” Rodighiero said. “Sometimes you have to be in small rooms, and especially when there’s evidence involved, it’s just difficult.”
Leonard said that on some trial days, courthouse officials sent residents to their cars to wait for an appointment. Virtual hearings were mainly held over Webex, a court video conference software, which presented technological difficulties to some residents.
“Yes, we have all this great technology, we can make it happen, but just because we can, doesn’t mean we should,” Leonard said.
Struggling to catch back up
Another obstacle that COVID-19 restrictions created is a backlog in hearings. A contributing factor was the lack of options for jury trials, which could not operate with COVID-19 restrictions. Another cause was limited courtroom capacity.
Now, the court is playing catch-up.
Prior to the pandemic, the Union County Circuit Court was stacking three or four hearings on trial days, but that number has now risen to five or six, according to Rodighiero.
“I attribute it to the backlog of people who are requesting trials,” he said. “For several months, we didn’t hold any trials, and now we’re setting them into this winter, December through February, for certain cases.”
While a five-month lag might seem large, Leonard explained that Union County is doing well, considering the circumstances.
“We started out the pandemic being pretty well in front of our docket,” she said. “Our backlog now is not nearly what it would’ve been if we had been backlogged to begin with. We did bench trials, with no jury, we didn’t stall those. We were able to do some of those things where other courts might not have been able to.”
Last month, Walters signed an order allowing courtrooms in Oregon to resume mostly in-person operations, meaning no more masks, social distancing or deep sanitizing between hearings.
Rodighiero said he is looking forward to accelerating the court process and to cut down on the backlog.
“It’s very much frantic right now. The court is trying to cycle through all these cases, because everyone has the right to a hearing,” he said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”