On Monday morning lawyers and defendants packed into the King County Superior Courthouse in apparent violation of new public health guidelines requiring gatherings of under 50 people to follow strict social distancing measures.
David Montes, special counsel for criminal policy and procedures at the King County Department of Public Defense (KCDPD), tried to make a record of the fact that the court continues to summon people to a cramped room for "non-essential" cases, but the judge dismissed him because he didn't have a client.
Anita Khandelwal, director of the KCDPD, called for the court to follow the lead of Snohomish County Superior Court and Seattle Municipal Court and stop holding all non-essential hearings for two months.
"We see our clients and staff convening far in excess of what the public health guidance is," she said. "We think this is unsafe. And the people we are putting most at risk are people trapped in the legal system, who tend to be poor people and people of color."
Despite a public health emergency, KC Superior Court continues business as usual, putting residents at risk. Here's a scene from Courtroom 1201 this am, where defendants, or their loved ones, appeared only to have out-of-custody arraignments continued. pic.twitter.com/H646A0fBRP
— KC Public Defense (@KCPublicDefense) March 16, 2020
Khandelwal considers most of these cases "non-essential" because the vast majority of them are simply continuances for defendants who aren't in jail. On Monday morning, for instance, a large group of people showed up for out-of-custody arraignments on drug charges. Their cases were pushed back a couple months, just like nearly every single case I've overheard since I began writing this post from the poorly ventilated courthouse waiting room this afternoon.
"These cases are very administrative, there’s nothing procedural happening, and our staff aren’t able to work these cases at the moment anyway," Khandelwal said. "In almost every instance we’re continuing cases out for two months. Why do we need people to show up for that?"
Though the 50-seat capacity waiting room did not completely fill Monday afternoon, nearly everyone in the room was sitting right next to one another, and only a few sat on the benches in the hallway.
Eyvette, a housekeeper who asked me why the hell I was taking pictures of everybody in the courtroom, called the hearings a "waste of damn time."
She said she had to leave work early to make her court date, even though she knew she was just going to get a continuance anyway.
"Why bring me down here when I could be working? Around all these damn strangers, catching that mess," she said of the coronavirus. "I'm missing my money. I have children. I have to pay my bills. They could have emailed me."
Khandelwal wants the court to stay partially open in order to process clients who are languishing in jail.
"Those in-custody hearings would require fewer people in the room, and many, many fewer of our attorneys to handle them. There would be fewer people in the gallery, and fewer people in the waiting room as well. Clearing out these hearings would free up more judges who could potentially hear these cases in different courtrooms, too," Montes added.
Khandelwal said there's "ongoing engagement with the courts about trying to move their operations into a place where they’re more aligned with public health guidance," but no announcements have been made yet.
King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers, who suspended criminal jury trials last Friday and limited family law court appearances Monday, is the guy who'll make the call to partially close the court or not. I've asked for comment and will update when I hear back.
In an email Judge Rogers said "we do not anticipate closing the Court, but the Court is reducing its work to essential functions," and directed me to the county website that mentions the actions I list above.
Edmund Witter, senior managing attorney at the Housing Justice Project, said the decision to continue calling these cases to court is "exposing what was apparent for a long time about this court: its indifference to social problems whether it's a housing crisis, criminal justice, or in this case, human life."
Meanwhile, though Seattle has put a moratorium on rent-related evictions, eviction court hearings continue apace across the county. Tenants must appear in-person to get the help they need to avoid evictions and (in some cases) to defend themselves, and the confines in these courtrooms can be close. Moreover, according to a recent report from the Seattle Women's commission, landlords file the majority of evictions cases against people of color.
In the interest of public health, groups such as Washington CAN are calling for the courts to suspend "non-emergency matters, including evictions."
"It is absolutely appalling that our court system is putting lives at risk during this outbreak," said Erin Fenner of Washington CAN. "Pushing a renter into homelessness during a pandemic isn’t just a health risk to the individual, but to the entire community around them."
On Monday afternoon, King County District Courts announced that they’re closing their courtrooms Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week. “People who are booked into county jails in Seattle and Kent during those three days will still appear for probable-cause hearings in the district court located inside the King County Jail in downtown Seattle, but otherwise all court operations will be suspended,” the release says.