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Clark County Superior Court Operations Update

Posted by William K. Thayer | May 20, 2020 | 0 Comments

Clark County Superior Court and the Clark County Bar Association (CCBA) provided an informational chat for the benefit of attorneys to bring us up to speed on court operations in these troubled times. Judge John Fairgrieve conducted the session on May 14, 2020 as a Zoom chat. Remotely attending attorneys were allowed to submit questions in writing at the conclusion of Judge Fairgrieve's presentation. The session was recorded, and supplemented by a succinct PowerPoint presentation. Presumably a recording of the video presentation and the PowerPoint presentation may be obtained from the CCBA or court operations. Briefly, below is the author's take on some of the things shared by Judge Fairgrieve.

All jury trials in Clark County Superior Court are suspended until July 6, 2020. Non-jury trials however may be possible in the interim, conducted remotely, or with the court's express permission in a fashion that respects strict observation of social distancing/public health measures.

In criminal cases, the speedy trial rule has by emergency declaration been tolled from March 16, 2020 to September 1, 2020. That timeframe will be excluded from any criminal case speedy trial rule count.

Non-emergency criminal and civil motions and hearings have been continued until after June 1, 2020, although the court has been (and will continue) doing its best to try to handle what it can before then on a remote basis.

In terms of actual operations at the courthouse right now, the local courthouse is open, but no one with symptoms of COVID-19 will be allowed inside. Persons within the courthouse must stay at least 6 feet away from each other and act in a fashion that respects strict observation of social distancing/public health measures. Masks are not currently required to be worn in the courthouse (due to concerns that such a requirement make offend “access to justice” constitutional rights).

The court has been willing to hear non-jury civil motions and trials since May 4, 2020, but the court is only allowing them remotely presently, and there will continue to be a court preference for remote hearings and trials looking ahead.

Ex parte dockets have remained open since March 23, 2020, and are governed by the General Order 20–11 Emergency ex Parte rules. Essentially, litigants and their lawyers may submit documents electronically for the court to rule on. This occurs without any personal appearance or input from the litigant/attorney, and only of course if the matter qualifies for ex parte consideration.

Since May 4, 2020, judicial settlement conferences have also been allowed and will continue to be available, conducted remotely via the Zoom platform.

In terms of criminal cases, it seems that there was an expectation for more plea-bargaining and change of plea hearings than has occurred during the weeks of quarantine we have been in to date. [This author's take on the implication from this is that criminal cases are essentially stacking up, and there will be a substantial burden on the court to deal with all of them when the excluded period from the criminal case speedy trial rule expires on September 1, 2020. In other words, since criminal cases are often given priority over civil cases when competing needs to schedule jury trials are concerned, this is not good news in terms of immediate access to future civil jury trials.]

The court will arrange for special settings for civil hearings that can be done remotely going forward, and has been doing so since May 4, 2020.

The court is restarting its Superior Court civil dockets beginning May 15, 2020. But presently those likewise are only being handled remotely.

The court to date has done just one family law trial remotely, using the Zoom platform; conducted by Judge Vanderwood. That Zoom trial reportedly went pretty well largely because there was reasonable cooperation with the special procedure required by remote presentation throughout by the parties. Extrapolating from that one experience, remote bench trials being held on the Zoom platform will work out better for the parties and their attorneys if all are cooperative and do some pretrial preplanning with regard to exhibits and objections.

The court has tried both WebEx platform and Zoom software. Its experimentation with both so far has led the judges to conclude that Superior Court should and will work to get its staff trained on the Zoom software, and make that the platform of choice for Clark County Superior Court in terms of remote video technology. With regard to exhibit management, the court is working on getting Dropbox software capability for dealing with exhibits in remote hearings and trials. It is not available yet, but again, their technicians are working to install it for use by the court.

So far, only two local courthouse court rooms can record remote video hearings, the G-1 court room and the Department 8 court room. The court's technical staff is trying, however, to upgrade all of Clark County Superior Court's court rooms to be able to also create an official court record of future Zoom hearings and trials.

In sum, in terms of jury trial planning, we are forewarned that the process is going to be difficult and time-consuming. As noted above, there will be no criminal or civil jury trials held in Clark County Superior Court before July 6, 2020. How soon they will start after that has yet to be determined, but probably not immediately. Clark County Superior Court Judge Scott Collier is a member of a statewide committee that is working to develop jury trial protocols in this new age. That may include starting each jury trial by devoting a day to the selection of the jury offsite, out of the courthouse in a larger arena (for example, in a school gymnasium where a large number of people can be kept appropriately distanced from each other). Then bringing the selected jury back, and holding the rest of the trial in the courthouse.

It was suggested that the reality is that what we all perceived as “normal” (in terms of accessibility to hearings and trials at the Clark County courthouse) such as it was before COVID-19 concerns resulted in the quarantine, won't likely occur within the foreseeable future, if ever. Instead, “social distancing” is likely to become a part of the court process for all of us indefinitely into the future, and it sounds like the court's goal will be to handle as much court business going forward as possible remotely.

Judge Fairgrieve closed the session, after answering several questions that observing attorneys had submitted for his response, by indicating that Clark County Superior Court judges hope to have some guidance on when jury trials will be able to officially start back up, and how the protocol for completing them will look, by mid-June of this year. He assured us that the judges want to be transparent about the changes being made, and that they will do all they can to keep the legal community and litigants informed as to additional adaptions to be made to Clark County Superior Court procedures.

About the Author

William K. Thayer

Bill Thayer is one of the founding partners of the Schauermann Thayer Jacobs Staples & Edwards law firm. Bill is licensed in both Oregon and Washington, and has been practicing law since 1980. Bill advises and represents clients in personal injury and wrongful death claims and litigation, including automobile collision, motorcycle, bicycle, and pedestrian injury and death cases, dog bite cases, construction site injury claims, and a myriad of other types of injury and death claims. While many claims are settled through negotiation or mediation, Mr. Thayer has litigated, arbitrated and/or tried to verdict many cases for his clients. He is also frequently appointed by courts and other lawyers to serve as an arbitrator of tort claims. Bill enjoys writing as one of his varied recreational interests when he is not working.

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