Utah courts facing logjams as coronavirus pandemic wears on

The coronavirus pandemic has had sweeping impacts on Utah’s court system and has led to a backlog in cases, Judge Mary T. Noonan, the state court administrator, told a state legislative committee on Monday.

The district courts currently face a logjam of 147 jury trials, 122 of which are criminal, Noonan said — a number that is increasing at a rate of about 29 each month. There are also 93 criminal bench trials in the queue and 273 civil bench trials waiting in line. Those are expected to balloon at a rate of 15 and 46 per month, respectively.

“Every month that goes by, the number of trials continues to accumulate,” Noonan told the state’s Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. “This will continue until we’re either open for business or, in the case of criminal jury trials, we’re able to constitutionally provide a viable alternative to an in-courtroom jury trial.”

Noonan said the court system has made an “extraordinary effort” to conduct virtual criminal proceedings, and even some civil proceedings, since the pandemic came to Utah in March.

Overall, the courts have held 34,347 online court proceedings, as well as meetings and trainings for staff, she said.

There were 30 civil trials in June and 29,000 hearings in July. But that’s only 42% of normal for civil trials compared to the same month in 2019, Noonan said. And the courts last year held 47,000 hearings on average each month.

“I think these numbers begin to indicate the size of the bottleneck that we are deeply concerned about,” Noonan said.

The backlog in proceedings is not insignificant, Noonan said, and affects not only the immediate parties involved in a criminal or civil case but “the whole criminal justice system.”

“The appointed lawyers are held up, not only the prosecutors but also the public defenders, the victim’s advocates, the jails and prisons are affected,” she said. “We all know there’s a [negative] effect on the larger criminal justice system when the court cannot move cases through.”

At Noonan’s request, the legislative committee voted unanimously Monday to recommend to the Executive Appropriations Committee that the state return just over $1 million to the courts to help it weather the challenges of the pandemic. That was money the courts had saved in the last fiscal year and returned to the state amid budgetary shortfalls as a result of the coronavirus.

“They really need [the money] to ... provide a greater service and move the courts along,” said Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, who made the motion.

If returned, Noonan said those dollars would be spent on security improvements at the Scott Matheson and West Jordan courthouses, as well as on upgrades to virtual proceedings.

While the pandemic has posed many challenges for the state’s courts, Noonan told lawmakers that she relates the circumstances to the opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

COVID-19 has, in a way, she said, “been the best of times” for the courts.

“And what I mean by that is it has forced the judiciary to reinvent itself, to provide services when folks simply can’t be in a courtroom packed in together,” she said. “We all know the restrictions and COVID has required that we close our courthouses and reduce our physical footprint but open our courthouses and increase in an extraordinary sort of way our virtual footprint.”

Those changes, she said, will serve Utahns “for decades to come.”