While the Judiciary of Guam has taken steps to continue operations during the ongoing public health emergency, there is still a backlog of about 300 felony cases that have yet to be presented before a grand jury and about 175 arraignments that have yet to take place, according to Danielle Rosete, the clerk of court for the Superior Court of Guam.
These numbers will fluctuate, both as new cases are added and as prosecutors and defendants work out agreements as they move through the criminal justice process.
The Judiciary authorized remote operations for certain matters and all arraignments have been done remotely since mid-July, Rosete said. But from those hundreds of cases, about 123 have asserted their right to a speedy trial, she said.
Rosete delivered the backlog update Wednesday, as one of several officials testifying before Sen. Therese Terlaje and other lawmakers on a series of bills intended to help the Judiciary resolve its backlog.
However, as some bills amend speedy trial rights and other laws related to defendants, they receive opposition from the public defender and other defense lawyers.
Bills 408-35 through 411-35 were introduced in September but proposed changes to the legislation had been considered by the Judiciary for a few months beforehand, according to a September letter from Chief Justice Philip Carbuillido of the Supreme Court of Guam.
‘Staggering and unprecedented’
Carbuillido stated in the letter that the Supreme Court had issued a series of administrative orders suspending nonessential court operations for all but a few weeks in the last six months, in conjunction with executive orders issued by the governor in response to the pandemic.
“The suspension of nonessential court operations has resulted in a staggering and unprecedented backlog of cases – a backlog which continues to grow each day and threatens the statutory right of all criminal defendants to a speedy jury trial,” Carbuillido wrote.
Size limitations on Judiciary facilities also hamper the court’s ability to safely commence jury selection and trials in light of COVID-19 safety precautions, he added, which will further delay its ability to tackle the backlog.
The Judiciary proposed four key changes:
- Expand the power of magistrate judges to include the authority to preside over additional nondispositive hearings and authorize magistrates to modify bail conditions (Bill 408).
- Temporarily increase the use of six-member juries, except in cases where the defendant is charged with a first- or second-degree felony (Bill 409).
- Temporarily reduce the number of peremptory challenges available in criminal cases (Bill 410).
- Permanently increase the speedy trial limits in criminal cases (Bill 411).
Pandemic challenges and other concerns
The pandemic has created challenges for both prosecutors and attorneys for defendants.
Attorney Curtis Vandeveld, who was not among those testifying, said his calendar is in constant flux, making positive movement on cases difficult. Isolation orders render depositions and other proceedings unable to be completed, he said.
But while he believes temporary orders are appropriate, Vandeveld said he does not support changing the law.
The Public Defender Service Corp. had its own concerns. In an Oct. 25 letter, Executive Director Stephen Hattori said the bills “seriously alter constitutional and statutory rights that have been long in existence.”
He requested that Wednesday’s public hearing be postponed for a month so that various legal and policy issues potentially resulting from the bills can be vetted, explored and analyzed.
There is no urgency to hear these bills, as the current Supreme Court administrative orders suspended speedy trial rights until December, he said.
However, the Office of the Attorney General stated that despite the order, there have been defendants who have moved to dismiss cases based on alleged violations of speedy trial rights. The attorney general offered an amendment to recognize delays attributable to the pandemic as “good cause” as a matter of statute.
The hearings pushed through and while he supported Bill 408 with some changes, Hattori opposed the remaining bills.
Attorney Anita Arriola, a private attorney, testified against Bill 409.
“This is a bill that during a pandemic seeks to restrict defendants’ rights rather than protect them,” Arriola said. “A jury of 12 is much more preferable in terms of protecting defendants’ rights than a jury of six.”
With regard to Bill 410, Hattori, Arriola and other attorneys at the hearings stated that reducing peremptory challenges would not reduce the backlog of cases and would potentially lengthen the jury selection process.
Defense attorneys were similarly concerned with Bill 411, the speedy trial measure. Alternate Public Defender Ana Maria Gayle said it was difficult to testify on the bill because she believes Bill 411 was “trampling way too much” on her clients’ rights and additional hearings on the matter are needed.
“I think we need a roundtable,” she said. “This is so unfair for our clients.”
‘Is the system working now?’
The attorney general supported Bill 411, stating that it represents the Legislature’s findings that the right to a speedy trial is of significant importance but not absolute.
“The court has also recognized that the protection of the health and safety of defendants, attorneys, court employees and those called to jury service outweigh the right to a speedy trial,” the attorney general testified.
Arriola said the Legislature needs to find out the number of people currently detained and waiting for trial before it considers Bill 411.
“If you’re not going to do that then you have no basis to change this law,” Arriola said. “Is the system working now? Because I don’t think it is from the experience of our firm … and if they can’t do that now, with our current speedy trial time limits, how are they going to do that with new time limits?” she said later.
Terlaje, in a release following the hearings, stated that she will seek further input on Bills 409, 410 and 411 based on information gathered from the hearing and concerns from defense attorneys. Stakeholders are encouraged to provide input until Nov. 6, the release stated.