The lobby at Kaahumanu Hale First Circuit Court on Punchbowl Street is usually bustling with noise and people.
The process of justice involves numerous people — defendants, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, court staff, jurors, victims, law enforcement, bailiffs, bondsmen and records custodians, just to name a few.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much of it to a halt.
On a recent Wednesday, the court’s lobby was nearly empty, save for a handful of staff and attorneys. The first question security officers asked at the door was, “Official business?”
State and federal court facilities in Hawaii and across the country have shut their doors to the general public to mitigate the risks of the coronavirus.
While those involved in the legal system say they understand the public health concerns, they point out the closures have created widespread confusion and unintended legal and financial ramifications, and could lead to massive backlogs.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Ken Lawson, legal analyst and co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, who teaches at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law. “Does a pandemic suspend an individual’s right to a speedy trial?”
Hawaii state courts have been closed to the public since March 20 and will remain so until April 30, according to a state judiciary announcement. Most traffic, criminal and civil cases have been postponed until then, and in-court proceedings limited.
Some cases are still being heard, however, such as those of defendants already in custody, whether they’re facing felony, misdemeanor or traffic charges. Restraining orders are also being processed as scheduled.
The federal court canceled the sentencing hearings for Katherine and Louis Kealoha, Minh-Hung “Bobby” Nguyen and Derek Hahn, the high-profile defendants convicted in June of conspiracy and obstruction charges. They were scheduled to be sentenced on March 17 and 18, respectively.
The cancellations were “in the interest of the safety and health of the public and of court employees,” court spokeswoman Lian Abernathy said in an email.
The pandemic will run its course on its own time, but the state constitution guarantees a “speedy trial,” which Lawson sees as one of the biggest potential problems if the closures were to continue. In Hawaii, the limit is 180 days.
The clock is ticking even while the courts are closed during the pandemic, because constitutional rights have not been suspended, he said. Pretrial defendants are waiting for their day in court. Some are locked up because they couldn’t afford bail.
And when the courts open and trials start again, they will have to deal with the backlog, Lawson said.
“It’s just going to cause all kinds of delays,” he said.
Lawson concedes a legitimate public health reason to close the courts. But he believes there should be a way to keep the justice system going. Otherwise, defense attorneys will be able to argue for getting clients’ cases dismissed.
“Courts have to come up with some type of formula to allow jury trials to continue,” Lawson said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but I know there has to be one.”
Noah Gibson, a Honolulu attorney specializing in family law, describes the recent delays as navigating through a field of icebergs at night: “You have no idea what the problems are going to be.”
One is that those who have lost their jobs and incomes and are therefore unable to make child support payments are accruing debt. The child support order doesn’t magically go away in a pandemic, and the only way to modify the order to take into account reduced income is to file a motion in court.
Meanwhile, the child support enforcement agency is closed to the public, although a skeleton crew of staff have still been working to disburse more than $5.5 million in child support payments, according to the state attorney general’s office.
“We’re going to have a massive backlog” in people trying to make child support payments, Gibson said.
Hearings in divorce cases are likewise canceled, meaning they can’t move forward as quickly, Gibson said. That’s difficult for families trying to move on with their lives.
“All of these people are stuck in limbo,” he said.
“It’s uncharted waters and we’ve got to figure out how to be creative and get access to the courts. And we can do it, we’ve just got to figure it out.”
Attorney Eric Seitz said he and his staff have had to scramble to deal with the delays, figuring out which deadlines for motions have been extended and which cases can still move forward.
“First of all, it’s created a great deal of confusion,” he said. “Everything has been pulled out from under us. And yet, we still have an obligation to the clients.”
The law office’s eight employees are mostly working remotely, but Seitz said he comes into the office at least five or six hours a day to sort out which cases still require action.
“We have deadlines for discovery in cases that are set for trial in the fall,” he said. “We have to figure out some way to move those cases along. It’s exceptionally difficult to do that right now.”
While juggling all that, Seitz is also trying to figure out how to keep his firm afloat. It’s like any other small business — cash flow has become a problem.
For example, he said the firm is awaiting a check from a state office from a settlement in a civil case. But that office is closed because of the pandemic, so that money is not coming in.
“I’m not taking a salary, but I’m continuing to pay people,” he said. “I’d like to continue that as long as possible, but we’re going to run out of funds pretty soon because sources of funds are going to dry up.”
Despite the chaos and confusion in other parts of the justice system, one bail bondsman said things were going smoothly for him.
“I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to file the bail, but we’re able to file bail,” said James Lindblad, owner of A1 Bail Bonds.
“I just want to support the chief justice and the governor. I think they have studied this and they have experts. I think we have to trust them.”