From the Multnomah Lawyer: News from the Courthouse July/August 2020

Presiding Judge Stephen Bushong and Trial Court Administrator Barbara Marcille Presiding Judge Orders and Level 2 Restrictions
The Multnomah County Circuit Court began moving to Level 2 restrictions on June 22. The presiding judge has issued Presiding Judge Orders (PJOs) describing the operations that will be conducted until the move into the new courthouse. The PJOs for juvenile, family and probate cases will remain in effect until the Level 2 restrictions are lifted. The PJOs for civil and criminal cases cover the first phase of Level 2 operations through August 3 and may be extended.

On June 1, the circuit court began hearing civil motions and used the month of June to effectively catch up on the motions backlog from the previous ten weeks, with most parties appearing remotely via teleconference.

Civil jury trials may be scheduled after August 1, but as long as the court is required to maintain social distancing for all court proceedings, it is unlikely that civil jury trials will be able to be held. Our court is one of the few courts in the nation to have actually held a jury trial during the pandemic, and we’ve learned through experience that it takes up to eight courtrooms to select a jury and conduct a single trial while maintaining the required social distancing. With the distancing needs, we’ve determined that we are able to handle no more than two to three jury trials per week because of the number of courtrooms and other resources required for each trial. Those trial slots will likely be used for criminal cases with in-custody defendants facing statutory or constitutional speedy trial deadlines. As a result, it is unlikely that many - if any - civil jury trials will be held until the social distancing requirements are lifted. The most recent Chief Justice Order (CJO) imposing Level 2 restrictions authorizes - but does not require - the court to resume landlord/tenant dockets after July 1, to the extent permitted under the moratorium on evictions. The Multnomah County Circuit Court intends to resume the landlord/tenant docket on August 3 for those matters permitted under the moratorium.

In-custody criminal matters remain the primary criminal proceedings being held on-site at the courthouse. Presiding call, ex parte, and misdemeanor criminal proceedings court (CPC) are being held telephonically. Criminal pleas for defendants that are out of custody are being taken remotely. The criminal sentencing for convicted murderer Jeremy Christian was held on-site at the courthouse during June and required multiple courtrooms for distancing. Some of the witness statements were made in the courthouse and others were given via videoconference. Due to the very limited capacity for seating in the courthouse, the sentencing was streamed online for public viewing.

The Justice Center has been heavily damaged and is not currently accessible to the general public. Arraignment proceedings held at the Justice Center are available online through live stream links posted on the court’s website.

Budget Updates
The judicial branch was asked to implement temporary but immediate measures to reduce expenses for the state. The circuit courts throughout the state implemented one day court closures in the months of May, June, and July. The cost-savings in our jurisdiction also included furloughs for approximately 40 court staff including 10 downtown hearings referees, 10 judicial clerks, and other personnel that are being furloughed through July. These are temporary furloughs, not permanent layoffs. Many matters ordinarily heard by our court’s hearings referees have not been authorized to be held under the pandemic operations restrictions; those matters that do need to be held are being presided over by circuit judges in the referees’ absence. The court needs a full staff back at work, whether remotely or onsite, in order to resume more services and proceedings for the public and recover from the accumulation of filings over the past several months. We anticipate that further information regarding the budget will be available following the special legislative session.

All state courthouses were ordered to be closed on Friday, July 17, for another statewide furlough.

New Courthouse Opening August 24
Due to pandemic-related delays, the opening of the new Central Courthouse is postponed to August 24. The last day of business at the Fourth Avenue courthouse is Tuesday, August 18, and then the historic courthouse will be closed August 19-21 for the move. The new Multnomah County Central Courthouse opens on August 24 at 1200 SW First Avenue.

Dockets have been updated to reflect these changes. The court thanks you for your patience during this time.

While the new building is spectacular and fully functional, we anticipate that the first weeks of operation will be especially challenging. As you can imagine, our move preparations have been constantly interrupted by the events of the last several months, and on top of that we are opening with an entirely new set of criteria for operating the courthouse. The new building was designed to prioritize access and efficiency for court patrons, but many of those features - such as touch-screen kiosks and public service counters without glass barriers - need retrofitting to reduce contact points during the pandemic. The public elevators in our new 17-story building are very fast, but we now have social distancing capacity limitations that will impact movement of people through the facility. The building’s jury spaces, conference rooms, courtrooms, and all the office areas have restrictions for how they can be used. We haven’t been able to offer tours or provide orientations to prepare lawyers or even our own staff and judges. Nevertheless, the new Central Courthouse in downtown Portland is opening for business at last.

A Sad Goodbye
Our friend and colleague Shelley Keller passed away unexpectedly on June 15. Shelley joined our court as a pro tem judge and hearings referee in January 2018. She worked in the Multnomah County courthouses for two decades, as both a public defense attorney and a deputy district attorney prior to becoming a referee. The new courthouse won’t be quite right without Shelley in it.

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