Jury trials are on hold (nearly) statewide as courts weather omicron

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Ouray County Courthouse in Ouray, Saturday Jan. 22, 2022.

Chief judges in 20 out of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts have put jury trials on hold for much of January, hoping to keep COVID-19 out of county courthouses.

Thirteen of those districts, including those covering the Denver area, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Grand Junction, plan to reopen by mid-February. In southwestern Colorado, the trial suspensions are indefinite as officials wait for infection and hospitalization rates to improve.

The two districts still conducting trials are both in eastern Colorado; the 13th and 15th judicial districts cover the counties along the Kansas border, as well Logan, Washington and Fort Morgan.

Federal jury trials in the state are also on pause until Feb. 11.

Over the two years of the pandemic, much of Colorado’s legal business has been able to move online — officials told lawmakers this week that across the state, courts are conducting roughly 1,000 hours of virtual hearings and meetings every day.

“We’ve gone from primarily an in-person operation to the majority of our business being handled virtually,” said state courts administrator Steven Vasconcellos at a legislative oversight hearing for the Judicial Department.

But one aspect of the justice system that remains fully in-person is jury trials.

State law guarantees the right to a trial within six months of a defendant entering a plea of not guilty. Since the beginning of the pandemic, officials have warned that court closures make it hard to keep up with that requirement

“While we are not out of the woods and have not caught up … we were able until the omicron surge to make significant progress on our trial backlog,” Vasconcellos said.

Last year, lawmakers gave the courts an extra six months to bring pandemic-delayed cases to trial. So far, 102 prosecutions have been delayed under that power.