Malheur County state court grapples with case backlog because of Covid outbreak

Malheur County Circuit Judge Hung Lung said the logjam of cases at the circuit court may not be fully resolved into a Covid vaccine is in wide use. (The Enterprise/File).

VALE – The state court is backed up with cases because of the Covid epidemic and the logjam may not break until a vaccine is in wide distribution.

The bottleneck began last spring, after Gov. Kate Brown issued a series of Covid restrictions and Oregon Chief Justice Martha Lee Walters followed with similar limits on the courts. In the wake of Walters’ Covid guidance, the Malheur County Circuit Court shut down all but essential court proceedings in early April. That meant many hearings, trials, and other court actions were postponed.

The influx of new defendants did lag early on in the Covid epidemic as law enforcement agencies adopted – in certain cases – a policy of citing suspects rather than arresting them and lodging them at the Malheur County Jail.

A decision in October by the court to open up some jury trials helped but hasn’t significantly dropped the stockpile of cases.

Statistics from Marilee Aldred, the trial court administrator, show 1,800 cases have been filed in Malheur County since the first of the year. In that time, there have been 487 hearings canceled because of Covid concerns and 224 cases have been rescheduled because of Covid.

“Now that we are starting to try cases again, we’ve got not only those that are currently being filed, but nine months of backlog,” said Vale attorney Dave Carlson.

Carlson said the circuit court is doing all it can to alleviate the backlog.

“I think everyone is doing the best they can with the tools they have,” said Carlson.

Still delays because of Covid have an impact, said Carlson.

“We are at the point where we are on the verge of beginning to ask for dismissals for violations of defendants’ speedy trial rights,” said Carlson.

Carlson said last week he is actively working more than 50 cases. Carlson said the start of jury trials is a good step but the decision created other problems.

 “It is not uncommon for us to have five or six trials scheduled all on the same day,” said Carlson.

That kind of tempo creates challenges for attorneys and defendants, said Carlson.

“We have to resubmit brand new subpoenas and go through the whole process again. It’s just too many. We have a number of other attorneys who also have trials who are probably double-booked,” said Carlson.

Carlson said he has stopped accepting new private clients, though he is still taking some court-appointed cases.

“It was hard to keep up before because there are not enough attorneys and we are probably short one judge. So, things were already getting a little backed up and when Covid hit it just blew up,” said Carlson.

Vale attorney Michael Mahony said he is “extremely busy.”

Mahony said many hearings happen over Zoom or are shortened considerably.

Mahony said his biggest concern regarding Covid is how the courts will conduct trials. Social distancing and other measures – such as a mask requirement – add a new dimension to pre-trial work and the actual case as it is tried in court.

“It is hard to pick a jury when you can’t read faces. Witnesses will be wearing mask, jurors will be wearing masks so I am not sure how that will get sorted out,” said Mahony.

Mahony said a “jury needs to be able to look at a witness and determine if they believe them or not.”

“Because if you look at someone’s face you can pick up clues that they are either not telling the truth or not telling you everything,” said Mahony.

The Covid epidemic created an array of new challenges for the 12-person court staff.

In the spring, the administrative office cut its hours of operation and directed employees to work from home, said Aldred.

Aldred said that after daycare providers were closed, some of her staff take leave to watch their children.

At one point, said Aldred, the office was operating with just five employees.

“That tells you what a skeleton crew we had,” said Aldred.

Aldred said the office is now back open five days a week.

With few proceedings – the court held just three courtroom trials since June – many hearings were switched online and conducted by video conferencing.

Fewer cases and a switch to online methods to conduct court proceedings didn’t cut down on the work load, said Malheur County Circuit Court Judge Lung Hung.

“It’s harder to get hearings started with different remote processes. Now with people calling in, or with video, that takes time to set up,” said Hung.

Hung, who is presiding judge of the circuit court, works with Judge Erin Landis to try local cases.

“There is a backlog and attorneys are having trouble meeting with clients. We are doing the best we can and providing a lot of different avenues if parties don’t want to appear in person,” said Hung.

Hung said Covid triggered other alterations to normal procedures.

“We allow a lot more postponements than we used to,” said Hung. “Attorneys are seeking continuances because they need time to talk to a witness or experts.”

Hung said Covid created other unexpected hitches such as when an attorney is in a high-risk Covid health category and can’t appear with a client.

“Or their spouse is high risk. Those are things we haven’t had to deal with before. We have to schedule things out. So obviously those things delay cases,” said Hung.

Hung said the court must face uncertainty for some time.

“We are working hard, but a lot of the delays are outside of our control,” said Hung.

Hung said he isn’t sure when the court can return to its regular format and schedule.

“I do think there will be a lull we will hit, whether cases go down or we get as vaccine,” said Hung.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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