After shutting its doors to the public for the better part of three months in order to combat the spread of Covid-19, Seattle Municipal Court is preparing to return to “normal” operations. In an email to attorneys who regularly practice in Seattle Municipal Court, the chief clerk provided both a calendar of prospective dates as well how the court intends to operate in a manner that will protect the public.
Seattle Municipal Court Covid-19 Re-Opening Phases
The court will re-open in a staggered fashion. Initially, it will remain closed to the public as staff returns to work on a limited “in-person” basis. From there specific hearings will be layered in, on a weekly basis, culminating ultimately in a full return to normal operations. The prospective dates and phases are as follows:
- June 15 – court remains closed to the public with the exception of in-custody hearings
- June 22 – staff returns to work on a limited basis but court remains closed to the public except for in person hearings
- July 6 – court is open to the public. Out of custody hearings limited to agreed dispositions
- July 13 – court begins to set pre-trial hearings; priority given to those cases with release issues, also review hearings with public safety concerns
- July 20 – DUI and Domestic Violence out of custody arraignments resume
- July 27 – review hearings, arraignments, and readiness calendar to determine priority for cases awaiting trial
- August 3 – disposition hearings and first week for motions to be set
- August 10 – regular court calendars in each of seven court rooms resume, no jury trials yet
- August 24 – resume regular operations including jury trials
The court felt comfortable announcing this plan once King County went into Phase 1.5 of its re-opening from Governor Inslee’s “stay at home” order. It will bear watching state and local Covid-19 numbers going forward as they could certainly impact and derail the above plan. And the dictates of social distancing (inter-personal spacing, mask wearing, etc.) will also have an impact on the court efficacy and efficiency. Along with the above schedule, Seattle Municipal Court issued its plan to comply with social distancing recommendations in order to keep its visitors safe.
Seattle Municipal Court Covid-19 Safety Procedures
Upon officially beginning it’s phased re-opening on July 6, 2020, Seattle Municipal Court has announced a number of precautions it will take in order to protect the health of all court staff, attorneys and visitors. Included in that announcement were requirements imposed on all court visitors as well suggestions to safeguard individual safety.
- Anyone entering the courthouse will be required to wear face coverings (unless exempt)
- Disposable masks can be provided but the court requests everyone bring their own
- Elevator occupancy no more than two at a time
- Restroom occupancy one person at a time
- Courtrooms limited to no more than 10 people, including court staff and attorneys
- Only one courtroom per floor in operation during phased re-opening
- The court will maintain vigilance in cleaning and disinfecting hi-touch surfaces
- Hand sanitizers will be made available
- Admonition to stay home if feeling sick
Currently, at least, there does not appear to be a plan in place to allow for video or telephonic hearings. Several courts around Washington, recognizing that even with the most meticulous planning for in person hearings people are put at risk, have set up contingencies to allow for electronic appearances. In many courts, at least in the short term, all non-testimonial hearings are being done by video or phone. It will be interesting to see how Seattle Municipal Court proceeds in the future. And, it is unlikely that returning to “regular operations” in two months and as we approach the fall and winter flu season, will be practical. This court is too busy to be run effectively in a limited fashion. The need for electronic hearings will need to be addressed in the very near term, if it hasn’t been already.