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Backlog builds at Idaho courts as pandemic delays 40,000 cases

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 31, 2021

By Betsy Z. Russell Idaho Press

BOISE — Idaho courts are facing big backlogs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with 40,000 cases awaiting adjudication.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Bevan sounded the alarm about the situation to the Idaho House and Senate last week in his State of the Judiciary Address.

“There are some proceedings which can only occur in person,” Bevan told lawmakers. “For those proceedings, courts have had to weigh competing interests and make very difficult decisions.”

That’s meant delays in “critical court proceedings,” especially jury trials, he said.

“The Idaho judiciary is working hard to assess the impact of delays caused by the pandemic, and there are some sobering things I can share,” Bevan said, in an address that was delivered remotely from the Idaho Supreme Court chamber this year and broadcast to lawmakers, due to the pandemic, rather than delivered in person.

“The number of pending criminal cases has increased by 22% since January a year ago, and there are currently over 40,000 cases awaiting disposition,” Bevan said. “We are not only working to recognize the scope of what faces us, we are conscientiously developing strategies to address this backlog.”

That includes using both senior and active judges to medicate more cases, in an effort to reduce the number of pending cases and trials. Technology upgrades are helping judges and courts consider new options, including holding jury trials “using locations much different than a traditional courthouse,” he said.

Bevan said the courts have made an array of changes to provide more remote access and electronic services amid the upheaval of the pandemic. He noted that the Legislature in recent years has invested in a major upgrade and modernization of the court’s computer system. That timing has helped courts remain “open to any person filing a claim and seeking a remedy,” he said.

As an example, he pointed to a new online system that allows Idahoans to file for civil protection orders without having to physically come to a courthouse.

“Within two weeks of the first COVID-19 case in Idaho, the Idaho Supreme Court deployed an online, guided questionnaire system that allows a person to complete and file a petition for a civil protection order remotely on the internet,” Bevan said. “This capability has made the courts more accessible to the people of Idaho, and will continue.”

He also noted that the court system this year is requesting more judges in Canyon County, including an additional district court judgeship and two more magistrate judges.

“To be clear, this request is not made solely as a reaction to the backlog of cases caused by the pandemic,” the chief justice said. “However, the need is significantly heightened by it.”

Adding a district judge requires a change in state law; last week, legislation cleared the House Judiciary Committee to authorize the additional Canyon County judge position.

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, tried to send the measure to the House’s amending order, objecting that the new judge would be appointed and start in October, then stand for election a little over a year later. Scott said she favored election, rather than appointment, from the start.

Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, an attorney, said, “I’ve been practicing law for 32 years, mainly in this district. I’ve never been able to tell the difference between an elected judge and an appointed judge.”

Scott’s bid to amend the bill was voted down, and HB 27, whose sponsor is House Judiciary Chair Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, is now pending in the full House.

Requests for the two additional magistrate judges plus a court reporter will be included in the budget request for the judicial branch of state government; the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on that budget request on Feb. 5. The joint committee is scheduled to start setting budgets for next year on Feb. 19.

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