From the Multnomah Lawyer: February News from the Court
Report from Judge Stephen K. Bushong
This report was given in December 2021 and is the last court update from Judge Bushong, whose term as presiding judge ended December 31.
Judge Eric Bergstrom is retiring from the bench. Judge Bergstrom has been especially valuable not just in Multnomah County but around the state for resolving complex criminal trials and will be missed. Judge Kathleen Dailey retired from the bench on January 31. She will continue to work as a senior judge post-retirement. Judge Beth Allen will move to the general bench at the East County Courthouse doing hybrid family, civil and criminal cases.
Updates to the Pandemic Response
The Omicron variant is now the predominant strain of the coronavirus in Oregon. Two-dose vaccinations without the booster have not been as effective against Omicron and another peak contagion period was expected in January.
On December 22, then-Presiding Judge Bushong issued two new Presiding Judge Orders (PJOs) in response to the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. The first order continued remote appearances in the juvenile proceedings that were scheduled to return to in-person appearances on January 3.
The second order continued the social distancing requirement for all court proceedings as authorized by an order issued by Chief Justice Martha Walters. The PJO also reinstated remote jury selection for all criminal and civil cases. These steps are necessary to minimize the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus in light of the highly-contagious Omicron variant in order to keep the court operational and able to hold trials. The limitations associated with social distancing mean that the court will only be able to conduct a limited number of jury trials each week as long as the social distancing requirement remains in effect. The highest priority cases - criminal cases involving in-custody defendants or approaching speedy trial deadlines - use many of the available trial slots, though the court is prepared to conduct misdemeanor jury trials and civil jury trials as well. Face masks and social distancing are still required for all court proceedings.
Social distancing limits the number of jurors that can fit in the jury assembly room. Although the jury assembly room can hold about 225 people, it can only hold about 75 with social distancing. Remote jury selection increases the number of potential jurors that can report for jury service on any given day. Thus, while the remote jury selection is comparatively unpopular with attorneys, judges, and court staff, it does allow the court to conduct more jury trials while social distancing is necessary.
The good news: as social distancing and remote jury selection continue, lawyers, judges and court staff are getting better at it, and the process is becoming more streamlined.
New Presiding Judge Order Re: Symptoms
Judge Bushong issued a new PJO that codifies what has already been generally in practice: anyone who has been exposed to COVID-19, or experiencing symptoms, should not come into the courthouse. People in those circumstances must get a COVID test and receive a negative test result before entering the courthouse. Marion County already had a similar PJO which has worked well. If a trial is scheduled, and someone involved in the trial has symptoms or tests positive, the trial will be postponed until that individual has tested negative.
This is intended to be a common sense policy: there’s no rigid “if you have one sneeze, stay home” rule - just pay attention to your body and be aware of the symptoms of COVID. The courthouse does not check temperatures at the door or screen individuals coming into the courthouse, so each individual is expected to be honest and comply.
A reminder to lawyers: your ethical duty of candor requires you to be truthful to the court. This applies to any reports regarding COVID exposures, symptoms or test results. Lawyers may not request a postponement of any court proceedings based on a false report regarding COVID.
Retrospective of the Court in 2021
Judge Bushong has greatly appreciated the bar’s flexibility and understanding over the challenging past year(s) in dealing with the pandemic. He expressed particular appreciation to Trial Court Administrator Barb Marcille and the court staff for quickly adjusting to the numerous changes in court procedures required to keep people safe during the pandemic.
Transition to Presiding Judge Judith H. Matarazzo
Judge Judith Matarazzo’s first day as presiding judge was January 1. Judge Bushong’s docket was the “presiding judge’s” docket and business scheduled last year to be before the presiding judge is now being handled by Judge Matarazzo. The system is designed to make it very easy to transition to a new presiding judge. The presiding judge’s contact information (email address and telephone number) is not judge-specific. Anyone who wishes to contact the staff of Presiding Judge Matarazzo will continue to use the same telephone number and email address.
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