Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said the temporary suspension of jury trials in Utah during the COVID-19 pandemic “should send freedom-loving Americans into sheer panic” and urged the Utah Supreme Court to immediately reinstate the judicial proceeding.
Beginning in March, the Utah Supreme Court issued a series of administrative orders “to bring uniformity to the operation of the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic” and to “identify mission-critical functions of the judiciary at each court level, ensure that the courts remain open to perform those functions, and to do so in a manner that promotes the health of the public and all court participants.”
In an administrative order on May 11, the state Supreme Court instructed district and justice court judges to not conduct “any criminal jury trials (whether the defendant is or is not in custody) or civil jury trials pending further administrative orders.”
Since that order, the Utah County Attorney’s Office has accused nearly 1,200 individuals “of felonies or class A misdemeanors in district court and approximately 700 individuals with class B misdemeanors in the justice court,” Leavitt wrote in a letter to the Supreme Court justices.
“Because of your order, their only option (along with the several thousand already pending defendants and victims when the Order was issued) is to take the plea deal offered or put their life on hold for literally years while the court system seeks to unravel the backlog the jury trial suspension has created,” the Utah County attorney wrote on Sept. 2.
“Defendants are not the only Americans suffering because of your order,” Leavitt continued. “Victims as well must wait indefinitely for the resolution of their cases. Police keep us safe on the streets, only to find their hard work bottlenecked and stopped by the judiciary.”
Leavitt, who has long warned about the dangers of phasing out jury trials in favor of plea bargains, asked that the justices “restore our individual and collective rights to a speedy trial and to a jury trial, and that you do so now.”
“Further, I would urge you to dialogue with us (prosecutors, defense attorneys, and trial court judges) so that together we may set forth a plan to safely conduct the jury trial in a manner that can and will be implemented with uniformity in every court,” he wrote.
In an interview Thursday, Leavitt said he felt compelled to write the letter because “no one was speaking up” about the suspended trials and he wanted to “have the issue be heard.”
“This is probably the first time in American history when courts across our lands have done this,” he said. “It’s not a hypothetical threat to our liberties, it’s a literal threat to our liberties.”
Leavitt added that there were reasonable measures courts could take to “have an in-person trial and keep people safe,” including rearranging the courtroom to spread out jurors and having the public attend through video conferencing.
“There are ways to have a jury trial in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “If we truly valued a jury trial, we’d find a way to have a jury trial. The problem here isn’t the pandemic. The problem is that we don’t value jury trials enough. Because when we want to do something, we find a way to do it.”
Leavitt said he received an email in response to his letter that said the justices would address his concerns during their next meeting. He added that a handful of county attorneys had reached out and thanked him for writing the letter.
“And I anticipate that the Supreme Court, who care about rights, who care about process, I think that they’ll be responsive to the letter,” Leavitt said.
Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at [email protected] and 801-344-2599.