Pandemic created massive backlog at Johnson County courthouse — here’s the plan to deal with it

Johnson County officials say there are between 400-500 criminal cases on hold because in-person proceedings have been suspended at the county courthouse in Olathe since the pandemic began in March 2020. The county now wants to hire 3 temporary attorneys to help dig out of that hole. Above, a courtroom inside the new county courthouse, which opened in January. File photo.

The closure of courtrooms for the pandemic has left Johnson County with such a big backlog of cases that it will mean hiring four temporary employees in the district attorney’s office to work for the next two and a half years.

County commissioners last week unanimously approved the request for three prosecutors and one trial assistant to be added to the payroll to dig out from under the backlog, which has reached between 400 and 500 cases since in-person trials ceased March 18, 2020.

The new temporary staff’s salaries would be paid from federal grant money for coronavirus expenses.

Constitutional concerns

The pandemic has crimped the state’s ability to provide constitutionally-guaranteed speedy trials, since meeting in person in a jury room has been deemed unsafe for most of the past 15 months.

During the pandemic, initial appearances, pleadings and other basic proceedings have taken place over a virtual meeting tool, with some viewing available on the court’s YouTube channel.

But criminal jury trials can’t be done that way because of the Sixth Amendment right for a person to meet accusers in open court. Virtual meeting tools do not meet the requirement, the county says.

Although statutory deadlines for speedy trial in Kansas have been suspended until May 1, 2023, the clock is still ticking.

Limited counter service at the courthouse opened back up this week. One or two single-day jury trials have been tentatively set for May 3, which will be followed by two weeks of monitoring for infection before more are scheduled.

The new courthouse opened at the start of 2021 in downtown Olathe, across the street from the old courthouse, but much of its space has yet to host any in-person activity.

Cases continue coming in

Out of thousands of court filings each year, the district attorney’s office typically handles 60 to 75 jury trials.

District Attorney Steve Howe told commissioners there are between 400 and 500 cases now in pre-trial dockets, and that cases this year continue to come in at a robust rate and ahead of last year.

How many of those will go to a jury trial is still unknown.

“There is no incentive for anybody to plead guilty if they’re facing serious sentences on sex crimes or homicides at this point, and that has resulted in cases stacking up,” Howe said.

Those cases, which include 25 homicides, are languishing in the system right now, he said. There are also 54 pending cases on severance of parental rights in family court.

Four or five hundred jury trials in two years is a worst-case scenario, Howe said. But even as prosecutors work to clear those, more will be coming in the door.

“It’s a moving target, unfortunately, for us. There are really serious implications in the next two years. We’re going to have to get this entire group of people who are waiting for trial and get their cases resolved,” Howe said.

The commission approved $860,650 to pay for the positions.