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North Dakota lawyers see major case backlog as trials resume

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Now that a North Dakota Supreme Court Administrative Order has been lifted, jury trials can resume.

Trials were allowed to start up again July 1, but with a few months of backlog.

We spoke with a defense attorney who says the court system will be feeling the effects of the shutdown for much longer than the trial suspension lasted.

“I, probably myself, have had a half dozen or so that were scheduled for June and some in July that got pushed back now to September,” shared Jonathan Byers, a Defense Attorney with Larson, Latham, Huettl LLP in Bismarck.

After months of quiet, the flip of the calendar to July brought an unsustainable caseload for lawyers in North Dakota. Byers says September is looking like the roughest month in the near future. He has at least triple his typical caseload.

He added, “I usually don’t have more than one jury trial scheduled in a month. Mine seem to be ones that take up more time than just a day.”

As for the pile of court dates that were set for July, Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer says most of them will be pushed back once again.

“The most I’ve seen is 10 trials stacked in a day, and now there has been up to…I haven’t counted recently, but at one point it looked like we had 20 scheduled in one day,” she explained.

Lawyer says that’s definitely not feasible.

“Well, obviously not. My understanding is that we’re only going to be conducting one jury trial per day, per courthouse,” she elaborated.

“It’s not going to happen at the same pace it was before,” Byers added.

Courtrooms are prepped for trials at the Burleigh County courthouse. Jurors will be spaced out in chairs that now sit where benches used to line the room for onlookers.

“We’re going to be bringing jurors in smaller groups so that they’re not all showing up in a big group…The process of walking up to a witness and asking them, ‘Do you recognize this document?’ That’s not going to happen anymore. We’re supposed to do this electronically,” Byers shared.

Lawyer says it will likely take until the end of the year for the courts to catch up. Byers says, maybe even longer.

“It’s kind of like having a month of bad weather and then all of the golfers wanting to get out, and having a few good days to get all of their golfing done… it’s just not going to happen. So we’re going to see some effects on scheduling– not just jury trials, but hearings– is going to be impacted into next spring, I’m sure,” he explained.

“My personal opinion is that four months was not an unreasonable delay because we’ve had cases that continue on for a year sometimes before they’re brought to trial. Again, we don’t like it when they last that long, but this was something that was just unavoidable, unfortunately,” Lawyer said.

Byers also said it’s creating a good bit of frustration for his clients who are waiting anxiously behind bars to see that day in court. The waiting game can be especially difficult when you’re rather isolated from the outside world and don’t know what’s going on.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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