Douglas County District Court faces significant backlog as jury trials resume

photo by: Journal-World file photo

Chairs are spaced apart at the Flory Meeting Hall of the Douglas County Fairgrounds on Dec. 18, 2020. Douglas County District Court began using the facility for jury trials this month.

As the Douglas County District Court recently resumed jury trials amid the coronavirus pandemic, the court began a daunting task of working a yearlong backlog of cases that will take months to resolve.

That backlog also means new criminal cases in the county that require jury trials could take much longer than usual, and individuals who are in jail awaiting new trials could be there until the end of the year.

But the District Court’s chief judge, James McCabria, thinks there really isn’t much the court can do to speed up the process. When asked by the Journal-World if the court could consider bringing in temporary judges to work cases, McCabria recently said in an email that the issue was not the number of judges but the amount of space required to safely try cases amid the pandemic.

So the only way for the court to get through the backlog is to conduct its usual proceedings as well as it can with the space that is available. As the Journal-World previously reported, trials are proceeding with special health precautions in courtrooms at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center and two buildings — Building 21 and the Flory Meeting Hall — at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.

“Right now, and until the risk of COVID transmission is able to be managed differently, the number one challenge is space within which to conduct a jury trial,” McCabria said. “It isn’t that we don’t have enough judges. We have to be able to spread out all the participants that are required to conduct a jury trial and accommodate public access in a meaningful way.”

But despite the challenge, McCabria said the court finds itself in a “pretty solid position” to manage the backlog and new cases that are added to the docket.

Currently, the court has 82 criminal cases scheduled to go to trial over the next six months that had previously been delayed because of the pandemic. That makes up more than half of the currently scheduled trials in Douglas County. McCabria said there are currently 141 jury trials scheduled, including recent criminal cases and backlogged civil cases.

The backlogged criminal cases were all scheduled before March 18, 2020, when the Kansas Supreme Court issued an order suspending proceedings in response to the pandemic. While the court eventually resumed operating, jury trials in Douglas County had continued to be delayed until this month.

To have that many cases pile up is likely unheard of for the county.

“It is certainly unprecedented among the collective memory of the judges and courthouse staff that the Kansas Supreme Court suspended all jury trials for an indefinite period of time,” McCabria said.

photo by: Journal-World file photo

Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria is seen in his court room during a trial on Oct. 1, 2019.

To schedule the backlogged cases, the court’s judges all needed to work together to sort out when they could occur, given the limited amount of trial courtroom space. McCabria said that too was unprecedented and was done to make sure the judges were not overloaded and to avoid conflicts over the limited space.

Additionally, because there are so many cases, McCabria said the next six months are booked solid for backlogged trials. He said that means new cases that arise generally won’t be scheduled until October or November. That too is unprecedented, he said.

“Without having conducted a formal and complete historical review of court records, I am very confident that the court has never had a six-month backlog of jury trials that has to be resolved before any other case can be scheduled for trial,” McCabria said.

However, the state has taken some measures to address issues that arose from the backlogged cases.

Under normal circumstances, state law says a case must be brought to trial within 150 days of being charged if the defendant is in custody or 180 days if the defendant is not in custody. If not tried within those time frames, the cases can be dismissed, or later challenged through an appeals process. But that provision can be waived by the defendant, allowing a case to take much longer.

But that law has been suspended for another two years. On March 30, just days before Douglas County resumed jury trials, Gov. Laura Kelly signed a bill into law that suspended the state’s speedy trial laws until March 2023, according to a governor’s office news release.

McCabria said that step was taken by lawmakers because every court in the state is facing some degree of backlog. But it is unlikely that any more can be done to help the court.

“Whether the pandemic circumstances will change such that other (alternatives) become better options remains to be seen,” McCabria said. “But, if circumstances change, we remain willing to consider how we can change with them — all while balancing the important work of the court against the public safety.”

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