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Washington courts to limit in-person proceedings in response to coronavirus

The temple of justice in Olympia
Parker Miles Blohm

In response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, courts across Washington state will limit in-person proceedings and try to keep jails less crowded, per an order this week from the state Supreme Court.

The order, signed Wednesday, requires many hearings to be postponed or held via phone or video. It also allows people in jail, who are at risk for COVID-19 while awaiting trial, to get in front of a judge more quickly for possible release.

Up until this point, local courts had been issuing their own guidance for how to proceed in response to the novel coronavirus. That caused headaches for attorneys and others involved in the court system, says Amy Muth, a criminal defense attorney based in Seattle.

Muth was one of the people who helped advocate for the statewide standards. She says her clients have been relieved to hear the news.

“There are people in vulnerable populations who are terrified about going to court,” Muth said. “There are clients who may not even reside in the state of Washington who no longer have to worry about getting on a plane to come here.”

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell also was among those who pushed for the court order. The superior court there had already had a similar order in place.

“We’re facing an unprecedented crisis right now,” Cornell said. “We have to weigh the need to protect the community with the need to keep the community safe from this virus.”

Cornell and Muth both emphasized that the Supreme Court order does not mean the courts are shutting down.

While many hearings will be postponed, there are exceptions. Jury trials that are already underway have the option to proceed using social distancing guidelines. Certain criminal proceedings also will be heard for in-custody defendants, including arraignment, plea hearings and sentencing hearings.

The order also requires courts to prioritize proceedings that are likely to result in a person getting out of jail.

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A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.