When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Mercer Island Municipal Court closed at the end of March. A multitude of cases were in the process of being heard and everything had to be halted.
On Aug. 24, the court was allowed to reopen with strict safety measures, including plexiglass dividers — or “sneeze guards” — a limited number of visitors inside the room and everyone involved in the hearing process required to wear a protective mask or other face covering.
“I think we had probably 300 cases backlogged that need to be heard,” said court administrator Cheryl Lucero-Lambo. “We’re still in the process of trying to get through that backlog, and of course with new filings, a lot of those — at least for criminal cases — have been referred to the prosecutor and she’s gradually filing new cases with us.”
She said there were some concerns when the court reopened about how things would proceed, but they’ve been efficient in making up for lost time. They initially got back into action four days a week and now they’re hearing cases two to three days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Before the pandemic, they usually had a full courtroom, and now they are allowing six cases to be heard per half hour.
Cases generally coming before the judge include misdemeanors, driving infractions, DUIs, assaults, thefts and more.
The “sneeze guards” are placed in front of the clerk and judge Wayne Stewart, at the prosecutor and defense tables — where a witness can sit — between the defendant and the defense attorney and there’s a movable divider between the parties and the general public. The defendant and defense attorney can pass paper notes through the divider.
Bottles of sanitizer are located throughout the courtroom and lobby, and tables are wiped down every time they hear a new case.
“We’ve been pretty lucky where we haven’t had any issues with attorneys or defense coming in and not wanting to wear a mask or trying to question what we were doing,” Lucero-Lambo said. “They’re just kind of following direction where we have them come in one door and then have them leave through a side door. Less exposure to everyone as a whole.”
While court was closed, Lucero-Lambo and her two clerks kept busy either remotely or in the office answering phones and working on notices of appearances, e-tickets and the plethora of parking tickets that were being issued. There were also some in-custodies and hearing requests for some infractions that needed attention.
The court is located in City Hall at 9611 SE 36th St. Visit www.mercerisland.gov/municipalcourt