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Covid-19 impacting Northwest Arkansas courts

by Tracy Neal | December 26, 2020 at 7:28 a.m.
A Benton County courtroom Nov. 27, 2020. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

BENTONVILLE -- Courts in Northwest Arkansas will have to deal with a backlog of hundreds of cases because of covid-19.

Doug Schrantz, administrative judge for Benton County's circuit judges, said they're examining case numbers to learn the full impact on the courts.

"We're behind, and we knew there was going to be a catch-up period," Schrantz said.

The Arkansas Supreme Court in March suspended court except for some emergency proceedings. Regular court proceedings, except for jury trials, resumed several weeks later. Jury trials were allowed starting in July but were suspended again in November until Jan. 15.

Benton County Circuit Judge John Scott said he would be surprised if the high court extends the suspension. Schrantz said many attorneys and their clients are hesitant to have jury trials because of the virus.

Billy Bob Webb, a Springdale lawyer, said he's sure some people are stuck in county jails and frustrated because of the delays. Webb believes the judges and prosecutors are doing the best they can.

"My experience and belief is that both counties are concentrating on adjudicating those pretrial detainees, with the exception of those that require a jury trial," Webb said.

Jay Saxton, Benton County's chief public defender, said the pandemic has caused an extraordinary delay on his office's handling cases.

"What use to take an hour can now take up to two days," he said.

Saxton said his staff communicates with clients by telephone because they are limiting the number of people in the office. Clients come to the office but have to review plea paperwork outside, he said.

It takes up to two days to complete plea paperwork for inmates, he said. Public defenders have to schedule a video visit at the jail and then email paperwork to the jail and the signed paperwork has to be emailed back.

"That's a gigantic delay there," Saxton said.

The slower moving courts are increasing the caseload for deputies, which is normally 250 active cases each. The caseload is up to 300 for some and 400 for others, he said.

"It's going to take a year or longer to whittle down these cases," Saxton said.

Scott, who handles civil and domestic cases, said jury trials are in a holding pattern. Anyone wanting a jury trial for a civil case is waiting, he said.

Kathy Cartwright, the administrative assistant for the Benton County Circuit Clerk's Office, said 12 criminal jury trials and eight civil jury trials occurred in 2019. Four criminal and two civil jury trials have happened this year, she said.

Benton County Circuit Judges Robin Green and Brad Karren each had a criminal jury trial in October. Their courtrooms were modified with plastic barriers between jurors and surrounding the witness box. Jurors were arranged so they could practice social distancing.

Washington County Circuit Judge Mark Lindsay, who hears the majority of criminal cases in the 4th Judicial Circuit, said he's planning modifications including plastic or glass barriers in his courtroom. But nothing is going to happen until the Supreme Court's suspension on trials is lifted.

Lindsay said the earliest would be Jan. 15, based on the last Supreme Court order he received in November. He's taking pleas and doing revocation hearings online and setting bonds, he said.

"That's about all I can do. I can't do anything that requires juries," Lindsay said. "Lawyers don't want to do it by Zoom -- a jury trial -- they want to be able to see those jurors up close and personal and try to read them, and I understand that."

Lindsay said he's scheduling multiple trials with the same start date in hopes one or more will get resolved with plea agreements ahead of time. He's also asked the Washington County Quorum Court to hire a law clerk to help review pleas while he's in court.

Criminal cases in Washington County were being reset for late July.

"Right now, it's just a big mess, and it's not going to get any better until the cases go down either because of the vaccine or because people start behaving themselves," Lindsay said of the growing daily numbers of covid cases in the state.

"What we're going to have to do is go back to work as hard as we can as soon as the gates open," he said.

Stacey Zimmerman, juvenile court judge for the 4th Judicial District, said she's been holding court online since mid-March and doesn't have a backlog.

On the civil case side, Circuit Judge John Threet said he's doing hearings and bench trials by Zoom. Threet said he expects a backlog of civil trials and those cases are being reset pretty far out next year.

Tracy M. Neal can be reached by email at tneal@nwaonline.com or Twitter @NWATracy.

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