Much of North Dakota’s judicial system has come to halt, as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.
This came as the North Dakota Supreme Court declared a Judicial State of Emergency this week. All jury trials have been suspended for the next five weeks.
And, this time can be even more isolating for those stuck behind bars, awaiting due process, and for the victims, hoping for justice.
Just how dramatically is the coronavirus affecting our courts?
Local Defense Attorney Jonathan Byers shared, “The US Supreme Court for the first time in 100 years postponed their oral arguments for March. The last time they did that was in 1918 when the Spanish flu was out.”
The State of Emergency includes both the state Supreme Court and District Courts. Hearings are still going on, based on each presiding judge’s discretion, but there are generally fewer people attending hearings, and they aren’t asking jurors to risk their safety.
“Certain hearings we just have to have. And it’s for protection of the community, the public,” added South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick.
“I think it’s an excellent decision, and the reason I say that, is no one wants to see justice denied or delayed. I think we all agree everybody has a right to their day in court, but when I say our jail is our priority, it is,” Burleigh County Sheriff Kelly Leben shared.
With about 300 inmates housed at the Burleigh-Morton Detention Center and corrections officers, Sheriff Kelly Leben says keeping people from coming and going as much as possible is essential.
“In the event we get the coronavirus in there, it’s going to spread quickly,” the Sheriff added.
“It’s an unfortunate but necessary decision,” Byers concluded.
He says at this point, lawyers are among the select few still allowed jail visitation.
Regardless, he has several cases that were bumped back to at least July. Byers says the backed up caseload will be a big challenge for our court system when the smoke clears.
We asked the defense attorney how this will affect the right to a fair and speedy trial.
He responded, “Well, what they do is, this is one of those constitutional rights that’s not absolute. They’ve decided that the necessity outweighs the constitutional right, and I’d have to agree. It just doesn’t make it any easier.”
Ultimately, Byers says it’s something that will have to be dealt with as it comes.
Officials like Sheriff Leben and Judge Romanick say safety and slowing the spread have to be priority one.
North Dakota Chief Justice Jon Jensen did make a couple of amendments to the Administrative Order Thursday, allowing written plea agreements for select C level felonies, rather than just for misdemeanors and infractions, in order to keep the court system moving.
District Judges can also now set bail for inmates outside of their jurisdiction, to speed up the process when necessary.