COVID-19 infects Kansas judicial system with backlog of more than 1,700 trials

to COVID-19 and lifting the statewide disaster declaration allowing suspension of speedy-trial rules would overwhelm the judicial branch. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Shawn Jurgensen, special counsel to the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, says at least 1,700 jury trials have been postponed due to COVID-19 and lifting the statewide disaster declaration allowing suspension of speedy-trial rules would overwhelm the judicial branch. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — District courts in Kansas face the substantial task of rescheduling a minimum of 1,700 jury trials that were delayed by the spread of COVID-19 and suspension of speedy-trial deadlines in March in conjunction with Gov. Laura Kelly’s issuance of a disaster declaration.

New criminal cases have been filed in the past six months, exacerbating the backlog, despite decisions by some prosecutors to refrain from filing hundreds of cases to keep the future pace of court proceedings manageable.

On Wednesday, Kansas legislators on the State Finance Council and the Democratic governor agreed to extend the statewide disaster declaration for another month to Nov. 15.

Failure to extend the statewide order will initiate a judicial clock that can overwhelm district courts with trials, said Shawn Jurgensen, special counsel to the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court.

He told a House and Senate budget committee that without continuation of the disaster declaration the judicial branch could not independently sideline statutory time requirements on criminal cases beyond March 2021.

“Success of addressing the backlog is contingent on many factors outside the court’s control: virus case numbers, prosecutors’ and public or appointed defenders’ capacity, unknown juror response ratees and restrictive venue statutes,” Jurgensen said.

He said a survey of judges amid the pandemic produced a firm response from Chief Judge Richard Anderson in Shawnee County.

“No,” Anderson said. “There is absolutely no way this court will be able to manage the criminal jury trial backlog within a 150-day timeframe.”

“Respectfully, this is a firm no,” said Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria.

Sedgwick County District Court Chief Judge Jeff Goering concluded: “Should the declaration of disaster emergency not be extended, it would be disasterous.”