Governor Polis moved the state of Colorado from Level Red to Level Orange on the COVID-19 dial on January 4, 2021. As people began to move about somewhat more freely, the change trickled down to district and county courts, with varying outcomes.
The courts in Colorado are divided into 22 judicial districts, consisting of varying numbers of counties. The chief judge in each judicial district was delegated the authority from the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court to decide, separate from other districts, whether and when to proceed with jury trials. This allowed the chief judges to weigh the prevalence of virus in a given community in getting groups together in their districts.
Each district is stepping into or back from the courtroom in its own way. In the 18th Judicial District, encompassing Arapaho, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, the most recent statement was issued January 8 suspending all jury trials through February 16. The order differed markedly from the District's previous approach, effective December 1, to ease into the courtrooms. The earlier order limited in-person proceedings to no more than 10 people per courtroom while observing six-foot social distancing, absent express approval from the Chief Judge. The process of entering and exiting the courthouse and rooms was staggered, and face coverings were mandatory, with personal protective gear available. Even in these cases, the order expressly encouraged maximum use of technology.
Varying orders and dates have been given in all Colorado courts, making it difficult to know how and when to prepare for a case. On January 25, Chief Judge Michael Martinez of the 2nd District (for the City and County of Denver) issued an order eliminating all jury trials through April 2. This followed a previous order suspending jury trials at least until January 4, 2021. The backlog grows.
Facilities factor into the decision when to resume in-person hearings and trials, and in this, bigger is better. The largest courtrooms with the highest ceilings are best equipped to socially distance jurors and courtroom participants. This is more common in older buildings, such as in Denver, which last fall tried to scatter jurists throughout its largest courtrooms. Despite many larger courtrooms, the Chief Judge in Denver has since suspended jury trials through March.
County courtrooms tend to be smaller than district courtrooms. The 18th judicial district has three smaller counties, Lincoln, Kiowa and Douglas, all with smaller buildings, and less business. Newer facilities built at lower cost typically have lower ceilings and more compact seating. But, better ventilation systems may be offsetting some of the drawbacks in hosting trials in smaller spaces.
All Colorado courts have been issuing and updating orders throughout the pandemic with timelines reflecting the most recent decisions by each chief judge. The status of proceedings for courts in and around Denver as of the end of January, 2021, were:
- United States District Court announced that trials scheduled to begin through Feb. 26, 2021 were continued.
- Denver District Court suspended all jury trials through April 2, 2021 (new order dated Jan 25, 2021 issued by Chief Judge Michael Martinez).
- Arapahoe County District Court suspended all jury trials through Feb. 16, 2021.
- Douglas County District Court suspended all jury trial through Feb. 16, 2021.
- El Paso County District Court suspended all jury trials through Feb. 18. 2021. Criminal jury trials were set to begin Feb. 19, and civil jury trials to begin March 8.
- Larimer County District Court is currently holding jury trials.
All courts do, however, have one similar rule in place. No one may enter until the court has received a written notification that the individual has tested negative for COVID-19, and have not been around an individual who has tested positive in the past 14 days. The pace of vaccine rollout in each jurisdiction is expected to similarly impact the uptick in cases being scheduled. But when will this happen?
While we all are excited and optimistic about the end of the pandemic given the rollout of multiple approved vaccines, the ultimate impact on getting our jury trials back on track remains uncertain.
Originally Published by Jones & Keller, February 2021
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