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Pandemic to result in lasting changes for North Dakota courts
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Pandemic to result in lasting changes for North Dakota courts

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Coronavirus pandemic disruptions wrought changes in North Dakota's court system last year, and some protocols could stay for good.

Jury trials were suspended for months. Judges held hearings remotely. Courthouses closed or limited access to the public.

"I will have to say, the courts were and the judges in particular were so adaptable to the changes," State Court Administrator Sally Holewa said. "And the attorneys were -- dare I say -- a delight to work with."

Amid the restrictions, North Dakota district court filings rose nearly 4% to 154,812 due to a 13% jump in traffic filings. All other case types dropped in 2020, some by 10% or more. And courts had their fewest jury trials in decades.

Those involved in the court process say the pandemic has resulted in changes for the long run.

"There are going to be long-lasting changes to the way our court system does work as a result of the pandemic, and I think some of those changes are going to be very positive," Fargo criminal defense attorney Mark Friese said.

Pandemic impacts

Some case types fared differently or unexpectedly amid the pandemic, the state court administrator said.

Eviction filings fell 14% from 2019. North Dakota's Supreme Court in March 2020 suspended all residential eviction proceedings except for good cause, and reversed the order in April 2020.

Holewa expected eviction filings to be down by 50% or more, calling the 425 fewer eviction filings last year "not an overwhelmingly large number."

Divorces fell 2.5% in 2020, but Holewa will look to 2021 data for how pandemic divorces stack up. She said families had stresses such as child care, distance learning and work/home balance.

Friese thinks "some relationships have deteriorated as a result of spending more time at home." He expects some people are waiting to file, knowing courts were backlogged and cases take time.

April 2020 DUI filings were down nearly 48% from March 2020, which Holewa attributed to state-issued business restrictions in the pandemic's early weeks, when bars and restaurants were closed to onsite dining and drinking for six weeks.

But she was surprised that overall 2020 DUI filings didn't drop more drastically due to restrictions and recommendations reducing businesses' hours and seating capacity at other times of the year.

The 13% surge in statewide traffic filings is likely due to law enforcement officers with more time to enforce traffic laws, said Friese, who is a former Bismarck police officer.

Small claims cases fell nearly 12%, but Holewa expects some parties held off on filing. Most cases concern collections on past-due bills, she said. 

Referrals to juvenile court last year reached a low since 2015 of 8,877, of which 1,853 became juvenile court cases. Most referrals are diverted from the formal court process.

Referrals last year fell 12% from 2019; juvenile court filings fell 16%.

"Parents are home, kids are home. There's a lot less opportunity to get into trouble," Holewa said.

Regional Juvenile Court Director Carrie Hjellming, who oversees Burleigh, Morton and 15 other counties, agrees. Children were at home and not in schools, and businesses were restricted, with fewer people going out.

"2020 was just a year that has really no rule book to follow," she said. 

Suspensions of jury trials led to the fewest in decades: 176, down from an average of 292 since 1997. The South Central Judicial District, encompassing Burleigh, Morton and seven other counties, logged 32 jury trials last year, down from 58 in 2019.

From mid-March through June 2020, North Dakota's Supreme Court suspended jury trials due to the pandemic. South Central jury trials were further suspended last fall to Jan. 1.

South Central District Presiding Judge Bruce Romanick said the district has now caught up on its trial load, though some civil trials are behind since criminal cases were given priority.

"I look at it here as we're kind of back to normal. We're doing things differently, but case flow and case resolution are back to normal," Romanick said.

South Central's total case filings fell nearly 2% from 2019, including drops in all case types but for traffic, which held flat.

Remote control

Romanick expects some pandemic protocols to continue for South Central, especially remote hearings for preliminary proceedings and for incarcerated defendants.

He noted benefits such as reduced travel and costs and fewer people in the courtroom, but also some difficulties that come along with videoconferences, particularly for court exhibits and the flow of speaking.

South Central had remote capabilities before the pandemic, but "it's just easier now, I think," Romanick said, especially due to better coordination with correctional facilities. 

Some attorneys recently told him that videoconferences are helpful in a rural state. One attorney appeared remotely for hearings in Burleigh, Emmons and Stark counties all in the same day.

Remote hearings also have myriad benefits for people who must appear, such as rural residents, people without a driver's license, doctors and winter travelers, Romanick added. 

"Maybe we've got to become more understanding of the population and what works for them," the judge said. 

Friese said he enjoyed the flexibility to appear remotely for court proceedings. Clients of his used their cellphone to beam in from their home. 

Hjellming said videoconferences resulted in more participation from parents in juvenile court hearings and from rural youth in group programs.

Despite the shift to remote means, North Dakota's Supreme Court has not revived online access to court documents. The access was live for a few days in early January 2020 but the court unplugged it due to people's privacy concerns for personal information that attorneys had not redacted from public records despite a rule they do so.

Clerks of court can email electronic documents but have no obligation to do so.

Fargo goes far

South Central had 28,542 total filings last year, the biggest caseload of the state's eight multicounty judicial districts, according to the 2020 annual court report. Filings comprise civil, criminal, traffic and juvenile cases, of which traffic is the bulk of cases.

The Fargo-area East Central Judicial District surpassed South Central for most civil and criminal filings in 2020. And the Minot-area North Central Judicial District had the most jury trials last year, with 37.

For years, South Central had logged the most civil, criminal and total case filings of the eight districts, according to annual court reports.

Court officials have attributed the district's high caseload to the Bismarck-Mandan hub, the bustling U.S. Highway 83 corridor and small but busy counties -- factors that cumulatively match or surpass Fargo-area court filings.

"I think (East Central is) seeing more of a population surge again, and it's not a direct correlation, of course, but with more people comes more issues," Holewa said.

Businesses headquartered in the capital city bring more cases for South Central, ranging from leases to employment issues to state regulations, she said.

Friese attributes the two districts' caseloads to factors such as priorities set by prosecutors who may be reluctant to plea-bargain or negotiate certain types of cases, a more active defense bar and more arrests by law enforcement.

"I think it's kind of a combination of all sorts of factors that influence those raw numbers," he said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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