SALT LAKE CITY – Defense attorneys should be the first in the legal community to receive COVID-19 vaccine, some Utah judges said Monday.
“Honestly, these are not our staff, but if you ask me who really needs vaccination on my team, I would say it is the public defenders,” District 2 judge David Connors told fellow members of the Utah Justice Council.
Connors said the attorneys who represent many in prison are facing “serious questions about whether they can interact with their clients.”
For their part, Utah inmates will not be vaccinated in bulk until March.
The coronavirus has spread rapidly in several county prisons across the state, where defense lawyers typically visit defendants to discuss their cases and prepare a defense. Although prison guards have restricted gatherings, many continue to take place in the facilities, with lawyers separated from their clients by glass.
Lawsuits are on hold in most states because infection rates remain too high to safely hold the trial in person. And while a limited number of trials take place in courtrooms, most are held online via video conferencing.
Utah Court of Appeal judge Kate Appleby wondered aloud Monday if the state could arrange vaccines for those to serve on the jury at a later date.
“If there was a way to do this, it could be the cause of our legal proceedings getting underway,” Appleby told other members of the Justice Council.
Meanwhile, Utah has hundreds of criminal cases piling up as attorneys oppose purely virtual criminal proceedings that they say may violate someone’s rights. However, the Utah State Bar is working on a pilot program to follow other states in conducting fully virtual litigation in civil matters such as contract disputes or medical misconduct claims.
Mary Noonan, the Utah state court administrator, said she plans to submit to Rich Saunders, interim director of the state health department, that judges and court officials must be viewed as material.
“We are the third branch of government,” said Noonan. “No other sector can so access and promote the constitutional rights of the individual as the judiciary.”
The sooner court clerks are vaccinated, the sooner the courthouses can go back to normal, District 3 Judge Barry Lawrence noted.
“It’s clearly not as important as the health workers, but it’s up there,” Lawrence told the council, which is the legislative arm of the state judicial system.
But some of his colleagues said they are not convinced that they should be among the first to receive a vaccine and that those who interact more directly with the public should come first.
In Utah’s juvenile justice system, court-appointed attorneys have the greatest concerns about meeting clients and maintaining distance, said District 2 juvenile judge Michelle Heward. They are “just so important to what we do,” she said, advocating putting them at the top.
“That would be great,” Richard Mauro, executive director of the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, told Deseret News.
Many of his lawyers continue to go to jail to work with clients believing that is the most effective way to communicate, he said. Others in risk categories had to use alternatives like phone and video calls.
Mauro estimates that between 300 and 500 cases are currently on trial in Salt Lake County.
Many could end on a pleading, but the defendants, for the most part, have had no opportunity to appear in person before a judge to challenge evidence or witnesses. Your attorneys want these hearings to be in person so they can effectively interview those around the booth.
“We have more and more cases that are falling behind,” said Mauro.
Davis County attorney Troy Rawlings agrees that defense attorneys should get the vaccine in front of prosecutors, who he said are still vital workers but can more easily meet with victims and others via video calls.
“I think it makes sense to prioritize those in the criminal justice system who have more interaction,” Rawlings said.
However, the investigators in his office fit that category. They interview inmates in prisons and are in public making arrests.
Legal proceedings are a critical part of the criminal justice system, according to Rawlings. He likened their absence to Utah Jazz trying to play the Denver Nuggets without a real basketball anywhere on the floor.
“We are confident,” he said, “that the vaccine will offer a way to retrial sooner rather than later.”