The Whatcom County Superior Court is issuing Administrative Order #8. We are doing this in order to respond to inquiries and concerns raised by defense counsel and the prosecuting attorney’s office.
These are trying times, and our circumstances are fluid, to say the least. For instance, next week, on Friday, there are over fifty matters scheduled for out of custody arraignment. Although there may some reason to believe that a good number of individuals may not appear, we cannot plan that way or assume that that will be true; they were summonsed and we have to be prepared to serve them all.
We also have to apply social distancing. The Whatcom County Superior Court in the aggregate believes that COVID 19 is a serious disease, perhaps not significant for most, but deadly for some. Here in Whatcom County the mortality rate is around 8%. For those of you who have expressed your frustration about ongoing restrictions, we would like to point out that our nation as a whole has now surpassed 100,000 deaths in a bare two months which is more than the total number of Americans who died in both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts combined, which raged over the course of years.
Thus, and particularly in light of the fact that our county has failed to meet benchmarks for moving into phase two of Washington State’s Safe Start Plan, we believe that social distancing and the ongoing requirement for COVID protective policies are vital for the protection of the public including every criminal defendant, civil litigant, attorney or court staff member. We balance this against our obligations to provide access to justice as well as to protect individual constitutional rights.
Order #8 institutes a time staggering process to avoid having too many persons in the courthouse, using the courthouse elevators, and being in the courtroom where large calendars would otherwise be heard. We recognize there are many unknowns at this moment, and that as a result of the implementation of this process there may be down time in court and that the plan may seem complex.
Nonetheless, we have an obligation to anticipate that every person having been summonsed will appear, and we have an obligation to heed the advice of public health experts regarding things like social distancing. As you can see in Order#8, the Office of Assigned Counsel will be reaching out next week to every person on the out-of-custody arraignment calendars who do not yet have an attorney, notifying them of the time they are expected to appear and inquiring whether they would like to apply for an attorney. Further, he Whatcom County Clerk’s Office is standing by to post notices for persons entering the courthouse regarding the time of their appearance, and to provide additional space for defendants to maintain social distancing while waiting for their cases to be called.
Given that no human can possibly be perfect, it is interesting to note that there often seems to be an expectation that plans made by humans should themselves be perfect. There is a related problem that if one takes all of the time one has trying to make one’s plan perfect, the ability to act in a timely and decisive manner is lost. Doubtless, there will be criticisms of this order, but at this time it is the Court’s expectation that everyone will cooperate fully in implementing this plan,with a spirit of desiring to make it work, so that we can actually know what its deficiencies are and what needs to be tweaked, or corrected, or discontinued altogether.
Thank you for your time and polite attention, and for your service to the system of justice on behalf of the people of Whatcom County.
For the Presiding Judge,
Robert E. Olson, Judge
Whatcom County Superior Court