Trials in the El Paso County Combined Courts resumed last week after a more than three-month hiatus – only to get an early hiccup where a prosecutor tested positive for COVID-19 the day after a trial was closed.
A defense attorney, a judicial officer, and at least one other District Attorney employee are currently in quarantine, and approximately 60 other individuals, including jurors and members of the public who were summoned to select a jury in the case, have been advised of their potential exposure. Court administrator confirmed.
The prosecutor’s positive test again reveals health concerns over the resumption of legal proceedings at a time when the coronavirus vaccine remains difficult to obtain for some of the lawyers and workers involved.
“Obviously, I’m not happy to be out and quarantined at home for the next 10 days or until I get a negative test,” said Eric Anaya, a defense attorney who was in close contact with the sick prosecutor during the time The trial was held in a district court for only a second time after it was suspended in November over a nationwide spike in coronavirus infections.
Although court officials, prosecutors and defense lawyers were vaccinated on February 8, some of them are trying to find vendors due to supply shortages.
For the Colorado State Public Defender’s Colorado Springs office, that means “scanning the Internet and searching multiple locations for an appointment” or traveling to rural areas where more vaccines are available, said spokeswoman Maureen Cain.
“Our office remains concerned about the resumption of legal proceedings and we are trying our best to protect our customers, our witnesses, families and our own employees,” she said.
Court administrators stressed that COVID-19 precautions remain in place at the El Paso County courthouse, including a mask requirement and social distancing rules that limit how many people can be in courtrooms and where they can stand or sit while waiting for performances. About 30% of the courthouse’s 400 dedicated staff – judges, clerks, reporters, and probation officers – say they received the vaccine, said Scott Sosebee, District Administrator Scott Sosebee.
“I understand that the prosecutor who tested positive never removed his mask during the trial and socially distanced himself from most of the courtroom,” Sosebee said. “As a result, the risk of exposure to other judicial staff and jurors is considered to be low.”
Although the El Paso County Courthouse reopened to the public earlier this month, many hearings are still being held virtually, and many services are offered online rather than in person. According to the administrators, the total number of daily visitors is around 10% of the prepandemic average of 3,000 visitors per day.
The trials resumed on February 22nd at a much reduced pace. Only two juries can be selected per day – one for the district court and one for the district court. This allows for four to five trials a week in any court system, said Will Bain, chief judge for the 4th judicial district. Before the pandemic, the district court was able to convene up to 30 court cases per week. The courts will “make it easy” for potential jurors worried about coronavirus exposure to postpone their duties, he added.
The accelerated timeline limits the ability of the courts to clear what Bain has described as “high-profile” after nearly a year of setbacks and delays due to the pandemic.
By mid-January, 14,700 lawsuits were planned across the country, a five-fold increase from the previous year, Bain said. El Paso County alone accounted for more than a quarter of the nationwide backlog. He said there were around 4,200 legal cases pending in the El Paso district and county courts.
“Not only are we dealing with the backlog of the pandemic, but our crime files have never slowed down,” he said.
Bain pointed out that the first trial after the break involved a fatal accident involving a drunk driver from April 2019, which illustrated how the pandemic has spawned matters of public concern.
The delays have far-reaching consequences, Gazette news partner Colorado Politics reported last week. Budget cuts resulted in layoffs of court staff in Boulder, Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, and Lincoln counties, which contributed to a slowdown. And Mesa District Attorney Dan Rubenstein worried about “softer plea offers” for defendants as overworked prosecutors attempt to get out of cascading case loads. Meanwhile, defense attorneys have raised concerns that clients with charges hanging over their heads are undermining their right to an expeditious trial.
Trials at the El Paso County Courthouse have been suspended since early November, and the courthouse was largely closed to the public until February 8, when it reopened for some personal services.
As the chief judge for the district, Bain has extensive latitude to direct litigation in the district and county courts of El Paso County on the orders of the chief judge of the Colorado Supreme Court. He said the courthouse will resume services “slowly and very gradually” to avoid overcrowding concerns.
Sosebee said he was encouraged by the number of vaccinations among court staff within the first two weeks of their approval.
“We will continue to encourage our employees and our goal is to have 70% of our employees vaccinated in the next few months,” he said.
Sosebee said he asked El Paso County’s public health for help in getting vaccinations for dedicated court workers but received no response.
Michelle Hewitt, a county health spokeswoman, told The Gazette the county health department has no plans to facilitate vaccinations for court workers.
“As of this writing, there are no clinics / dispensaries (PODs) planned for specific occupational groups,” she said, referring questions about vaccine distribution to individual employers responsible for advising their employees under the state’s roll-out plan.
Sosebee said he emails the courthouse staff weekly with information on where to look for vaccines and has sent letters to staff confirming they are eligible to get a vaccine as part of Colorado’s gradual rollout receive.
“The challenge was to make an appointment with the pharmacy providers,” said Sosebee.
A Colorado Springs public defense attorney, who asked not to be named, described “frustration everywhere” and said that a colleague who looked for the vaccine in a pharmacy was turned away after being falsely told it was ineligible be. Two other legal workers interviewed by The Gazette said that more appointments to get vaccines had become available at pharmacies and other vendors over the past week, and both said they had no problem getting vaccinations.
State spokeswoman for the Public Defender’s Office, Cain, said in several jurisdictions, “The community has been very supportive and vaccinated our people with prosecutors and some other law enforcement agencies. For example, Mesa County and Pueblo County’s attorneys have received a lot of support. “
No data were available on how many defense lawyers, prosecutors and private attorneys were successfully vaccinated.
“It would not be appropriate for us to ask staff and there are numerous places for vaccination,” said Howard Black, a spokesman for 4th District Attorney Michael Allen. “Getting the vaccine is a personal choice.”
Black said the prosecutor’s positive test result last week only quarantined one other DA employee. Anaya said the sick prosecutor was sitting next to a second prosecutor at the same table and that a trainee attorney was “in and out” during the trial.
Anaya, a private practitioner, said he was not vaccinated. Private lawyers were not among the judiciary and executive lawyers who were entitled to the vaccine on February 8. This group generally consists of prosecutors and public defenders. However, private attorneys representing needy defendants through the State Office of Alternate Defense Counsel were added to the list in mid-February after lobbying by the ADC, Anaya said. The ADC appoints lawyers for defendants who cannot be represented by public defense lawyers due to various conflicts.
Amid concerns about the health consequences of going back to court, many stakeholders in the judicial system are also concerned about what will happen when the coronavirus threat wears off.
“I think everyone is crazy about the avalanche of lawsuits that will land when all of this is over,” said retired Denver attorney Phil Cherner.
Brian Boatright, Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, said, “We are committed to getting everyone vaccinated so we can begin dealing with the huge backlog of cases awaiting trial.”