Multnomah County Court Operations - Phase 1 Reopening Details

“Slow ride,
Take it easy”

On June 12, 2020, Multnomah County is expected to enter “Phase 1” reopening from the COVID-19 state of emergency declared by Governor Brown.  Under a Chief Justice Order (CJO) issued by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters, approval of the County’s “Phase 1” reopening plan will mean that Multnomah County Circuit Court will move from Level 3 restrictions to Level 2 restrictions.  Under Level 2 restrictions, the court will be allowed to conduct more proceedings than it had been conducting under Level 3.

This does not mean that the court will suddenly reopen for “business as usual” before the pandemic.  Instead, the resumption of court services will be, as in the Foghat song quoted above, a “slow ride” due to staff limitations, budget cuts, and health concerns.  Exactly what additional services will be allowed will be specified in a series of Presiding Judge Orders (PJOs).  Lawyers should consult the PJOs—which will be posted on the court and MBA websites—to learn the details.

In summary, court operations under Level 2 restrictions will begin resuming in two stages.  During the period June 15 to July 14—before the move to the new courthouse—all of our courthouses will continue to be fairly quiet.  Most judges and staff will continue to work from home.  Most court proceedings will continue to be postponed.  The “essential proceedings” that have been held under Level 3 restrictions will continue to be held.  A FEW additional proceedings will be held, but many proceedings will continue to be postponed.  After we reopen in the new courthouse on July 20, we will still be subject to Level 2 restrictions, but the layout, technology, and additional space in the new courthouse may allow us to conduct a FEW MORE court proceedings than we can handle in the old courthouse.  However, this will be another “slow ride” to resuming operations because we will continue to limit the number of people in the courthouse and comply with physical distancing requirements as we adjust to the new facility.

The combination of 4 factors will continue to limit the court’s ability to conduct court proceedings in all areas—civil, criminal, family, juvenile, probate—during the period June 15 through July 14. Those factors are:
 
  • Jury trials and social distancing.  Social distancing will be required for all court proceedings under Level 2 restrictions.  Our court is one of the few courts in the nation to conduct jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Under Oregon law, an in-custody criminal defendant must be brought to trial within 60 days after being taken into custody.  That period can be extended twice for good cause, but after that, the defendant must be brought to trial or released.  Some defendants are released, but we’ve held trials where the court has concluded that release puts the victim or the public at risk.  It takes up to 7 courtrooms to conduct jury selection and trial while complying with social distancing requirements.
  • Budget reductions/furloughs.  The judicial branch was forced to cut expenses immediately due to revenue shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Ten downtown referees and about 40 other critical court employees have been furloughed during the months of June and July.  As a result, the court simply does not have enough staff to do all the work we would like to be doing.
  • Backlog of civil motion hearings.  Civil motion hearings were delayed under Level 3 restrictions until June 1.  The court decided to “catch up” on the backlog of hearings right away, scheduling all the delayed matters for remote hearings in June.  It took a substantial commitment of judicial and staff resources to get these hearings back on track. 
  • The Move.  The court will be closed July 15-17 for the move.  We’ll reopen in the new courthouse on July 20.  Moving an organization of this size and complexity into a brand-new facility would be a challenge in “ordinary” times.  It is especially challenging during a pandemic.  Court resources and staff that would otherwise be used for court business are devoted to planning and preparing for the move.

The combination of the above factors makes it impossible for this court to conduct all the proceedings that might be allowed under the CJO.  Please be patient.  Do not expect us to be able to do everything right away.  Instead, as Foghat suggests, just “take it easy.” 

Endnote.  The English rock band Foghat formed in 1971.  Its hit song “Slow Ride” is on the band’s 1975 album Fool for the City.  Attending his first “major” rock concert, a teenager named Steve Bushong saw Foghat perform the song live at the Civic Center in Saginaw, Michigan in the mid-1970s. 
 


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