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COVID and the Alaska Court System: Masks and social distancing in the courtroom

With new rules in the courtrooms, some attorneys are worried about what it will mean for their clients' representation.
Published: Oct. 7, 2020 at 4:54 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - COVID-19 upended life as we know it, so this week we are doing a series of stories on how the pandemic is affecting the court system. Catch up on part one where we talk about speedy trial rights and part two which looks at the case backlog.

Misdemeanor trials in Alaska are set to resume in November, and if everything goes to plan felony trials will begin in January.

Even though trials are resuming, they will look much different than before with social distancing and required masks. Some attorneys worry that these rules may make it hard to adequately represent their clients to a jury.

Once trials resume and the backlog begins to clear, there are still challenges facing the court system. According to the latest order from Chief Justice of Alaska Joel Bolger, once misdemeanor trials resume in November, jurors, attorneys, witnesses and defendants will be required to wear masks and social distance.

The order said, “The trial judge shall require all participants to wear a mask or face covering except those speaking behind a Plexiglas barrier or transparent face shield, or those exempted from wearing face coverings for health reasons or for being under age two.”

Many defense attorneys we spoke with worry about the effects that masks will have on trials and if they will be able to offer sufficient representation for their clients.

For example, a big part of a jury trial is being able to read the jury. "There is a lot of just feeling what is going on in the room. If somebody folds their arm at a particular time, scrunches their face up... those can all be differences. And wearing a mask is somewhat uncomfortable. I mean we are all doing it when we fly or when we travel, but it is uncomfortable,” said private Fairbanks defense attorney Bill Satterberg.

Another concern is the jury being able to watch and read witnesses and attorneys when they speak.

Bolger says it is necessary to have exceptions to the mask rule to ensure a fair trial. “We have tried to identify the circumstances where it will be very important for a speaker to remove the mask, but otherwise it’s likewise very important to require everyone to wear masks in the courtroom so we can protect the safety of everyone involved.”

The order reads, “During courtroom proceedings, the judge may authorize removal of masks or face coverings as necessary, including for purposes of witness testimony, defendant identification, or making an appropriate record, provided that appropriate social distancing or other protective measures are followed.”

Satterberg said another issue with masks is the hearing impaired, who may have to read lips.

Aside from the masks, another change coming to courtrooms is social distancing. With everyone sitting six feet apart, many courtrooms may be too small. The order from Chief Justice Bolger allows for courts that don’t have enough space for social distancing to use alternate venues in the community. The order also says that members of the public who wish to view the proceedings may be required to watch from another room or online through livestreams.

Satterberg worried that being to six feet from clients may make it difficult to talk about the trial during proceedings, but the order allows judges to let, “participants who have an ongoing professional relationship to sit or confer without maintaining the usual social distancing.”

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