A move past the Stay at Home mandate will eventually lead to a reopening of courtrooms, but attorneys and judges will face docket backlogs once trials resume.
It could take a year or more to chip away at a docket of previous cases along with upcoming trials, according to District Attorney Ricky Ward of the 18th Judicial District.
“We’ve figured out ways to continue to move the docket to get new court days and keep moving, but the delay will probably double the case load,” said Ward, who will retire at the end of his term after 30 years in office.
The Louisiana Supreme Court put trials on hold about the same time Gov. John Bel Edwards declared the state emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March.
Adherence to the Stay at Home mandate brought one possible saving grace amid the mounting backlog, however.
“We’ve been fortunate that the crime rate went down a little bit, maybe because so many people stayed home in the pandemic,” he said.
The district court has handled bond reductions and arraignments through Zoom and Skype, but it has not helped in the biggest issue for the judicial system.
“If they don’t plead guilty during arraignment and want a jury trial, we can’t have it,” Ward said. “On jury trials, you may have 150 people subpoenaed and they may be sitting next to each other in a courtroom – and that just can’t happen right now.”
The caseload will probably remain until the courts either schedule more trial dates or bring in ad hoc judges.
“The use of ad hoc judges is my suggestion, but if we go from one jury term a month to maybe two or three, it might not take long to catch up,” he said. “It all depends how quickly they let us back in court.”
The answer ultimately depends on how soon the state Supreme Court allows court hearings to resume, Ward said.
“From the day we can walk in and start handling things in a normal fashion, even if we do just one week jury term a month, we could get caught up in probably a year,” he said. “But we do some things to speed it up or have judge give us additional dates, probably catch up in three to six months.”
Ward doubts his office will have trouble operating even after several months without an influx of revenue.
Fines and forfeitures help fund the operations of a district attorney, but parishes also funnel revenue into the office.
A revenue surplus could hold the office in place for as long as 18 months without any additional cash infusion, Ward said.
“We’ve been very lucky,” he said. “A lot of DAs offices across the state can’t do that.”