Malheur County Circuit Judge Hung Lung is rotating duty with his counterpart, Circuit Judge Erin Landis, as the local court adjusts to new directives from the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court in response to the COVID-19 virus outbreak. (The Enterprise/File).

VALE – Courts have become quieter in Malheur County, another sign of the impact of the spreading novel coronavirus.

Fewer people and businesses are deciding to sue each other.

Some defendants are agreeing to push off trials, perhaps worried that jurors would be upset with having to sit in a jury box and take it out on them.

And Malheur County’s two state judges, Circuit Judge Lung Hung and Circuit Judge Erin Landis, rotate duty so one is always on duty during the day at the Malheur County Courthouse.

Marilee Aldred, the trial court administrator, is working from home and has five of her 10 employees still staffing the court operation.

Judges, court workers, prosecutors and private attorneys have all been adjusting to increasingly stringent conditions imposed by Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters.

“Our goal is to continue to provide essential services while significantly minimizing the number of judges, staff, litigants and case participants and members of the public who come into our courthouses and offices,” Walters wrote in her latest order, issued March 27.

Hung, the presiding judge in Malheur County, said essential court proceedings continue but as many hearings, trials and other court actions are being pushed out until at least June 1.

“Being a court, you try to have some kind of stability,” Hung said. “It’s been really tough, what we’ve been doing. It changes on an almost daily basis.”

The court also will close at 3 p.m. on Fridays – instead of at 5 p.m. – because of reduced staff, said Aldred.

The most pressing is to provide court access for defendants being held in jail, who have constitutional or other legal rights that can’t be put on hold. This includes plea hearings, sentencings and “any other hearing that will directly lead to the release of the defendant or the resolution of the case,” according to Walters’ order.

But the flow of defendants into the Malheur County system has slowed as law enforcement agencies more often cite suspects rather than arrest and jail them.

And Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe said activity by the county grand jury has been reduced. He said the jury of seven people – now meeting once a week in a larger room to account for social distancing – is only considering one or two cases. Those typically involve reviewing charges against someone already in custody, Goldthorpe said.

No criminal trial has been held in recent days, and Hung said he has rescheduled those he can until this summer.

He said county officials worked with court officials to still allow access to the court process even though the courthouse building is closed. People can still get to the second-floor offices by entering through the courthouse rear entrance and going upstairs without reaching other county operations. Hung said while there is limited court staff now, people can still submit paperwork to file cases or request emergency proceedings, such as getting a restraining order against an abuser.

“If you have an essential hearing, your case will proceed as normal,” Hung said.

He said the flow of civil cases – disputes over money and contracts or personal matters such as divorces – has diminished.

“People don’t want to come to the courthouse if they don’t have to,” Hung said.

Aldred said 200 cases of all types were filed in Malheur County Circuit Court in March, compared to 216 in March 2019.

“It’s really slow,” she said. “Aside from people coming in for protective orders or payments, we’re not getting a whole lot.”

Not a single trial was scheduled for this week, she said.

Goldthorpe said his workload has dropped. He’s able to take on tasks he’d normally push aside.

He said he recently got an email from a fiction writer who wanted to check on the accuracy of a detail about the system.

“She had a question about the law,” Goldthorpe said. “I responded.”

Hung said he and Landis work from home when they don’t have the daily courthouse duty.

“I’m hoping that if there is a silver lining to all this,” Hung said, “it’s that we are more thankful for our family and friends, for the stuff we don’t have right now. On a personal level, how thankful are we going to be for that family barbecue or to go to a community function, a fundraiser for something?”

Contact Les Zaitz: [email protected]

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