The coronavirus pandemic has slowed down construction of the new Nome Courthouse, forcing local court operations to be housed in a temporary location – the Lutheran Church. But even when the transition to the old Nome hospital does happen later this year, adhering to social distancing requirements could still be an issue for the court.
Nome’s courthouse will operate out of the Lutheran Church for the months of July and August. The new courthouse is being constructed on 5th Ave. in the same building that houses Trinity Sails and Repair. Brodie Kimmel, the Courthouse Administrator for the 2nd Judicial District, says that building isn’t expected to be move-in ready until September.
They were unable to extend the Front Street building’s lease this past June, she explains; but since most court business is closed to the public at this point anyway, Kimmel doesn’t think the move will greatly impact services for most Nome residents.
“We’re already utilizing telephonic hearings. The clerk’s office is closed to the public. The court has a work station set up in the public hallway that has a computer, phone, and drop box that will allow staff to help customers who come to the court via phone.”– Brodie Kimmel
Those services will continue but obviously the Lutheran Church doesn’t have a courtroom to hold hearings. So in the meantime, Nome’s court proceedings will be hosted telephonically through a courtroom in Anchorage.
The Nome Court is still preparing for other challenges too. While jury trials statewide are suspended until at least September 1st, grand juries were allowed to proceed beginning on June 1st.
It’s the grand jury’s job to hear evidence from the prosecutor and decide if a case should move on to trial. A case can’t progress through the court system without it. But, Kimmel says, hosting a jury during the pandemic is a challenge.
“Statewide, courtrooms are just not designed for social distancing protocols and the court in Nome is no exception to that.”
There are only three courtrooms in the state that are equipped to hold socially distant grand juries and even when the new Nome courthouse opens, Kimmel says it won’t meet those protocols.
And, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Kimmel says it was too late to change design and construction plans for the Nome courthouse.
“What some of our other court locations like Kotzebue and Utgiagvik are doing is linking two courtrooms together via video link to hold grand jury proceedings. So we’ll look into doing that at the new court building in Nome, as well.”
But that idea still can’t be implemented until September.
Kimmel says plans to hold local grand jury proceedings during the rest of the summer aren’t firm yet, as they search for an adequate space. It may be that Nome will have to take advantage of a special order from Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger that would allow those hearings to be conducted by a grand jury from another court outside of Nome.
While the court system figures out how to proceed during a global pandemic, incarcerated people and defendants involved in a criminal case will be waiting for a total of at least five months to receive their trial and due process under the law.
Image at top: Nome’s Courthouse on Front Street. Photo from Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM (2019).