In ordinary times, a community’s fairgrounds would be an extremely unlikely setting for a civil or criminal trial. These aren’t ordinary times. Thanks to a bit of creative thinking by local officials, “All rise!” may soon replace “Step right up!” at the Spokane County Fairgrounds & Expo Center.
The coronavirus has brought jury trials in Spokane nearly to a halt in recent months. No civil juries have convened since the pandemic began in March, and only four criminal jury trials have been held since early July, when a state Supreme Court suspension of jury trials expired.
Resuming a normal docket has proven difficult because of the need to provide sufficient social distancing for juries and other courtroom participants. The Superior Court has enough space to accommodate some trials, as court officials are demonstrating, but safely returning to a typical schedule of three trials a week would be a challenge. Holding six trials a week – the courthouse’s capacity – would be impossible.
Court officials looked for buildings with available space near the courthouse, as The Spokesman-Review’s Rebecca White recently reported. But they could not find a suitable building with low-cost parking and easy access for jurors.
So the search broadened. As Superior Court Administrator Ashley Callan says, “Extreme times makes for extreme out-of-the box thinking.” Court officials hit upon a great idea – turning to the fairgrounds for temporary courtroom space. And why not? It has plenty of easily adaptable space, and it is largely unused these days. All outside events at the venue have been canceled because of the pandemic. The upcoming 10-day Spokane County Interstate Fair has become a mostly online event.
The Spokane Bar Association has embraced the idea, and – to their credit – so have Spokane County commissioners. The County Commission’s approval was necessary because the fairgrounds are in Spokane Valley, outside the city of Spokane, the county seat. The state Supreme Court also must sign off on the proposal. If all goes well, trials will resume in September. An otherwise temporarily shuttered public facility will be back in public use.
The fairgrounds arrangement isn’t expected to cost much – about $20,000 – and commissioners expect to draw at least some of that from the county’s share of federal aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
With the additional space at the fairgrounds, court officials anticipate they will be able to safely resume civil trials with jurors. So far, there isn’t much of a backlog because many plaintiffs during the pandemic have opted not to take their cases to trial. Criminal jury trials will continue at the courthouse because of security and transportation issues, although some cases involving defendants who aren’t jailed may be shifted to the fairgrounds.
“It was a very reasonable request, and I think it was very creative of the judges to expand outside of the courthouse,” Commissioner Al French observed.
Indeed, it was. In challenging times like these, it is important that regional leaders work together and look for new ways to make the best use of public resources. With this idea, they stepped right up and won a prize.
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