Months of courtroom closings and delayed trials due to the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a spate of unsolved cases that are expected to stretch into next year, lawyers and judges said last week, with some speculating on how the courts are handling the workload as soon as regular business is resumed.
After allowing trials to resume on June 30 after a three-month suspension, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed course this month, ordering the suspension of all trials that did not come until January 15 in response to a rising Number of virus cases the state.
Pulaski County, home of the state’s busiest judicial district, has been on hold since March when the county closed its buildings, including the courthouse, to the public.
“It is not [just] Worryingly, there is a backlog, “said John Johnson, the assistant attorney general for Pulaski County.
While hearings, filings, and other pre-trial matters were allowed to continue – in person and through video or teleconferencing – Johnson and other lawyers said that even these corridors of the judicial system have been slowed down by the lack of upcoming legal proceedings. In normal circumstances, the parties may be encouraged to To make settlements or objection agreements.
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Jesse Gibson, a plaintiff’s Little Rock attorney who represents clients in civil litigation, personal injury and malpractice cases, said he has a double-digit backlog of cases and struggles to get opposing parties like insurance companies to settle.
“Without the proverbial sword of Damocles over your head that a jury verdict might be pending, there’s not much to really move cases forward. It kind of lets cases sit,” said Gibson. “Even before the Covid, defense was often not the engine behind it to resolve cases on the civilian side.”
In addition to concerns about a backlog of some attorneys, once the pandemic has subsided, new pandemic-related litigation may arise at the same time.
That expectation has led the Little Rock law firm Kutak Rock to hire an additional attorney for the group of four on business and class action lawsuits, according to Jess Askew III, a partner with the firm.
“Our law firm, our litigation group, is planning an explosion of litigation once the circumstances are right,” said Askew. “We are planning a lot of work.”
Others were skeptical of an increase in coronavirus-related claims, citing an order issued by Governor Asa Hutchinson in June granting businesses and citizens immunity from lawsuits for exposure to Covid-19 as long as they act in “good faith” to follow public health guidelines.
“As long as it stays that way, it puts the Kibosh on that kind of claim,” Gibson said.
David P. Glover, a medical misconduct attorney for Wright Lindsey Jennings in Little Rock, said he did not expect a surge in coronavirus-related claims in court. In three to four years, he said there was even a possibility of a decline in misconduct claims as fewer people went to hospitals for other treatments during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Glover said he hadn’t seen a drop in new cases filing, even if old cases brought to trial last year were delayed.
“I’ll be so busy trying the stuff in 48 months that I should have tried two years ago that I can’t feel it,” he said.
At the Pulaski County Courthouse, 6th District Administrative Judge Vann Smith said last week that “there will definitely be a spate of cases” to deal with when the courts reopen.
He said court cases are likely to be secured at least a year after they resume. Meanwhile, Smith said he was preparing to hand over his administrative duties to another court judge, Leon Johnson.
The judges on the circuit are looking at several ways to reduce that backlog, Smith said, such as: B. to prioritize older cases and invite small jurors over the winter for orientation so that the juries can form more quickly after the start of the court proceedings.
In its per curiam statement earlier this month on the suspension of legal proceedings, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered that criminal judges serving in lower courts should review their files for defendants who have been incarcerated for more than a year and are awaiting trial , and determine whether their borrowing amounts are changing appropriately.
This order followed on from an earlier decision in March in which the Supreme Court stated that delays due to precautionary measures against the pandemic would not apply to defendants’ rights to expeditious trial.
“There will be a number of cases in midsummer that I don’t know how to deal with,” said Gregg Parrish, the executive director of the Arkansas Public Defender Commission. “I really don’t.”
Parrish said he had spoken to prosecutors about the possibility of reducing the backlog through objection agreements that come closer to the state’s recommended sentencing guidelines, although he added that some prosecutors consider these guidelines to be too lenient.
Johnson, the assistant prosecutor for Pulaski County, said his office’s attempts to resolve more cases through objection agreements have not proven effective.
“There has to be a jury trial for a defendant to plead guilty,” said Johnson, adding, “We make fair offers whether or not there is a pandemic.”
In Fayetteville, Circuit Judge Mark Lindsay said he plans to make structural changes and add plastic and glass barriers to his courtroom – where most criminal cases are heard on the 4th Judicial Circuit – so that trials can resume if the Supreme Court does this suspension is raised.
To break the backlog of cases, Lindsay said he was preparing to stuff his docket and setting up multiple lawsuits with the same start dates in the hopes that one or more would be resolved with plea agreements in advance. He has also asked the Washington County Quorum Court to hire a court clerk to help review causes of action while on trial.
“We have to work as hard as possible again as soon as the gates open,” said Lindsay.
Ahead of the court stay suspended by the Supreme Court earlier this month, Glover traveled to Chicot County in early November to worry about his first trial against doctors for medical misconduct since January.
In the months since his last trial, Glover said 10 more cases had been delayed and he felt “resentments” that the Chicot County didn’t have. But in the courtroom, he said, the judge took steps to put up barriers between the jury, lawyers and the gallery. Everyone wore masks, he said, except when they testified or questioned witnesses.
After the process was completed without complications – and at a profit for his client – Glover said he felt “energized” by the process.
“It’s compromised,” Glover said of the state’s judicial system. “But it will come back, and when it comes back it will be very busy.”