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Iowa courts working through backlog caused by coronavirus restrictions

The Linn County Courthouse on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (Brian Tabick/KCRG)
The Linn County Courthouse on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (Brian Tabick/KCRG)(KCRG)
Published: May. 13, 2020 at 10:27 PM CDT
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The onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic forced a halt to the right to a speedy trial as well as several cases being heard throughout the county, creating a backlog of hearings for attorneys.

Now, legal professionals are gearing up to take on the extra cases and learn what the new norm will be.

"The justice system is treading water but right now we're waiting for the tidal wave of the backlog of cases to hit our shores,” Jerry Vander Sanden, Linn County Attorney, said.

Vander Sanden said there are hundreds of cases on his office's plate right now. Many of those cases will be decided without a jury but he said about 2 or 3 percent of criminal cases will still need one. That’s means a lot more people would need to be in the courtroom.

“Everyone has their right to a trial with the jury of their peers,” Vander Sanden said. “We can't ask people to come to the courthouse unless we can ensure their health and their safety.”

The date currently set to restart civil and criminal non-jury trials is sometime in June, with criminal jury trials expecting to start the following month. While Vander Sanden and his team work on those, a defense attorney said he will probably have to wait on a number of his cases until the court starts to catch up.

"You've got issues of people who may be in custody in criminal cases; they're entitled to their day in court,” Peter Riley, of the Tom Riley Law Firm, said. “Custody cases also need to be heard. Childhood is not a long period of time so those need to get resolved very quickly."

The Iowa Supreme Court is currently working with several legal professionals to start rolling out a plan.

"My guess is we will start doing maybe one at a time to see how we do with structuring some social distancing and possibly some of masks,” Patrick Grady, chief judge of the Sixth Judicial District, said. “Those questions are still being looked at."

Grady said these plans have been in the works since the courts partially closed in March. While the dates on when certain hearings will take place aren't yet official, those working on the cases said it will likely look a little different when they get back.

“I think that the system is going to change to allow for more things to be done not in person,” Riley said. “Again, you can't try a trial where you have witnesses, you have the jury that has to listen and see the exhibits but not all being in the same place.”

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