By Ray King

The Arkansas Supreme Court has issued an order suspending all jury trials that have not begun until Jan. 15, 2021.

In an order issued late Friday, the state’s high court said jury trials that are currently ongoing are to be completed.

The court order said the decision to suspend trials was made because of an increase in COVID-19 positive tests and hospitalizations.

“The Arkansas Supreme Court does not take lightly the decision to halt jury trials,” the order said. “It weighs on this court that we are exposing the hundreds of citizen jurors around the state who are being summoned to do their civic duty as well as increasing our court personnel’s risk of daily exposure to the virus. The dramatic uptick in cases in Arkansas requires us, as leaders of the state judiciary, to do our part to help protect Arkansans.”

There have been no jury trials in the 11-West Judicial District which includes Jefferson and Lincoln Counties since the initial Supreme Court order in March and plans were made to use the Pine Bluff Convention Center or the old Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Library as sites for future trials were still being developed when the new order was issued.

The court went on to say that it is vital that judges continue to move cases forward, either through the use of technology by virtual or telephone hearings or through in-person hearings that can be done following State Department of Health guidelines.

Criminal matters and civil matters shall continue to take place either by video conference or in-person as scheduled by the presiding judge, and the Supreme Court said those hearings are to be conducted “through appropriate and safe means,”

The Supreme Court said in the order that it was aware that there are defendants who are awaiting trial that have passed the 12-month speedy trial requirement  and ordered criminal courts to review their dockets for criminal cases that have been pending for more than 12 months where defendants were not given a bond or have not made bond and evaluate whether there is any reason to reconsider bond.

“We are not requiring a new bond hearing in these cases, but rather the circuit courts should review the case and, if necessary, make any adjustments if the situation supports it,” the order said.

In March, the Supreme Court said any delay for speedy trial purposes doe to precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic shall constitute good cause for a delay and are excluded for speedy trial purposes.