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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Some trials will be held at Spokane County fairgrounds under plan backed by commission

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 26, 2020

Superior Court Judge Annette Plese hears lawyer arguments in a family law court case using Zoom on May 14 at the Spokane County Courthouse. The court is considering holding some trials at the county fairgrounds.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Superior Court Judge Annette Plese hears lawyer arguments in a family law court case using Zoom on May 14 at the Spokane County Courthouse. The court is considering holding some trials at the county fairgrounds. (COLIN MULVANY)

As the coronavirus pandemic has brought the local justice system almost to a halt, local court officials have hit upon a novel idea for getting the wheels of justice turning again: holding some trials at the Spokane County Fairgrounds & Expo Center.

Since the start of the pandemic, Spokane County has had no civil jury trials and just four criminal jury trials, two of which are ongoing.

All four trials occurred after the Washington State Supreme Court’s suspension of juries expired on July 6.

Superior Court Administrator Ashley Callan said the courts are currently conducting two socially distanced trials in the existing courthouse space, but holding more would be a challenge.

Under normal circumstances, about three trials are held each week, although the court has capacity for up to six trials a week.

Callan said a backlog of pending trials has not built up on the Superior Court docket because many who might have pursued taking their case to trial chose not to do so during the pandemic.

But once more courtroom space is available, she said, it’s possible the number of trials will increase because the court has the capacity for them.

“It really all boils down to space,” she said.

Callan said the court looked for buildings closer to the courthouse, but needed a large building with low-cost parking that would be easily accessible for jurors and allow them to socially distance.

She said finding jurors to fill out a jury hasn’t been a huge issue, but the county needs to provide space for them that is safe.

“Extreme times makes for extreme out-of-the-box thinking,” she said.

Due to a 1971 law, Superior Court is not allowed to hold a trial outside of the county seat, which is the city of Spokane, without the consent the Spokane County Commission and the Chief Justice of the Washington State Supreme Court.

Because the fairgrounds are located in Spokane Valley, Spokane Superior Court Presiding Judge Harold Clarke had to obtain both the commissioners’ and the state Supreme Court’s support.

Spokane County commissioners voted to allow the remote location during their Tuesday meeting.

Callan said she hopes the Superior Court will hear back from the state Supreme Court by the end of the month so trials could begin in September.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said the fairgrounds had been underused in the past few months with all outside events canceled and the 10-day Spokane County Interstate Fair mostly moving online next month.

“It was a very reasonable request, and I think it was very creative of the judges to expand outside of the courthouse,” he said.

The move to the fairgrounds was also praised as a creative solution by the Spokane Bar Association.

Ken Zigler, treasurer on the executive committee of the Spokane Bar Association and a family law attorney, said he appreciated the effort to keep court participants safe and the willingness to try new ideas.

“It is encouraging,” he said. “We’re excited to see the court is working on innovative solutions to make sure that the wheels of justice keep turning.”

Callan estimates the court also will need about $20,000 to set up a remote court location.

French and Commissioner Josh Kerns said they would support meeting that cost with money from the county’s allotment of federal aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

She said the court likely won’t need to modify the fairgrounds to hold trials, because the space is a blank slate with plenty of room for jurors and a bench.

If the courts do get approval to use the fairgrounds, it will mostly be used for civil cases, although criminal cases involving a defendant who is not in custody could be held there as well.

Callan said criminal trials involving defendants who are jailed will take place at the courthouse to avoid transportation and security issues and costs.

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