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caption: Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, Washington.
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Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, Washington.

Meydenbauer Center will provide extra courtrooms as King County jury trials resume

Jury trials have been backlogged around King County due to Covid -19 closures. But now those trials are starting up again, with new safeguards in place.

Court officials say they consulted public health experts to insert social distancing into the trial process. Where hundreds of jurors used to report to the courthouse each day, jury selection is now happening remotely with groups of jurors on a Zoom call. Prospective jurors can be excused if they have health concerns.

Start times for each trial will be slightly staggered to prevent crowding in the buildings. Judges, clerks and bailiffs will sit behind plexiglass shields.

Everyone will wear masks in the courthouse – but the court has clear masks for witnesses to wear when they take the stand, so jurors can better assess their credibility.

Jim Rogers is the presiding judge for King County Superior Court.

“Instead of going into jury rooms which are frankly quite small, we’re actually vacating a number of our courtrooms to serve as jury rooms again so people can be socially distanced," he said.

To compensate for the lost court room space, Rogers said Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center will serve as a temporary courthouse.

“Those cases in the Meydenbauer Center are going to be all civil cases, with some family law bench trials as well,” he said.

Criminal trials will proceed at the courthouse in downtown Seattle and the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, which have jails nearby.

Rogers said nearly 900 criminal cases and countless civil cases were affected by the pandemic. And most of the 1,300 people in King County Jail are awaiting trial.

He said the pandemic forced one change that will likely remain in place – virtual hearings for people who have been released pending trial.

“It used to be, for example, you’re charged with a crime, and you’d have to take a day off of work and find childcare. We’ve now allowed everyone who’s out of custody for their pretrial hearings to appear by Zoom,” he said. “That’s been very successful and very popular.”

Rogers said often those hearings last just a few minutes.

“It makes a great deal of sense if we can allow people to appear from wherever they are for short matters, and it really creates equity and access,” he said. “Almost everybody has a cell phone, and in criminal matters we’re prepared to buy minutes for people if they’re out of minutes and can’t afford them.”