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Utah courts face trial backlog because of COVID-19

State of the Judiciary
Posted at 3:05 PM, Jan 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-19 17:42:45-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Court system faces a backlog of jury trials because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state legislature was told.

"We have been able to largely keep pace, at all court levels, with our pre-pandemic caseload," Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant told the Utah State Legislature during his annual "State of the Judiciary" address.

But in his videotaped remarks, delivered remotely because of the pandemic, Chief Justice Durrant said he had concerns about so many delays because of the deadly virus.

"While we continue to see the vast majority of cases resolve within established case processing timelines, those cases are still taking longer to resolve and we are setting dates that extend further into the future than was typical of our pre-pandemic calendaring practices. And more significantly, the inability to safely conduct jury trials—especially in criminal and tort cases—is creating a considerable backlog. This is a source of great concern to me and to all our judges," he said.

Like everyone else, the Utah State Court system had to pivot to online business. Hearings have been conducted virtually. Even the Utah Supreme Court hears cases over WebEx.

The courts have held jury trials during the pandemic, but it hasn't been easy.

"On the one hand, individuals are constitutionally entitled to jury trials, and, in criminal trials, their very freedom may be at stake. On the other hand, we as a court system, have an obligation to ensure that the public and our employees are not put at undue risk," Chief Justice Durrant said. "This obligation is heightened by the fact that we as judges have the power to force potential jurors to come to our courthouses, potentially putting themselves at risk of illness or even death."

The chief justice asked lawmakers to fund more technology advances for the court system. The legislature gave the courts money last year for IT upgrades — but then took the money back because of COVID-related budget cuts.

Addressing last year's protests against police brutality and racial inequality, Chief Justice Durrant said many feel left behind by government. He wanted them to view the courts as a place where they can get resolution and justice.

"We, as a judicial branch, are committed to holding ourselves accountable, and to reaching out to the public with a message that in Utah’s court system everyone will be treated with the respect and dignity that is owed them as citizens and as human beings. Public trust is the currency of the judiciary. We are committed to being worthy of that trust," he said.