DA candidates discuss impacts of coronavirus
Editor’s note: This is the final piece in a four-part series of the candidates running for Chautauqua County District Attorney.
The two candidates running for district attorney both agree that the coronavirus has impacted the court system.
During a private debate with the OBSERVER and The Post-Journal, District Attorney Patrick Swanson and challenger Jason Schmidt were asked “How has COVID-19 impacted the criminal justice system and will it lead to new ways of tackling cases in the county?”
Schmidt noted that when the pandemic hit, his private office continued. “After the shutdown occurred, I held the first jury trial I know in all of Western New York. … It may have been (the first) throughout the state,” he said.
Schmidt added that it’s not easy to have to wear a mask during a trial. “But we were able to do it and the court figured out a way to conduct a trial that they felt was implemented taking into consideration the various safety measures,” he said.
Schmidt noted the courts have reopened and things are back on track. “They (courts) have the ability to convene grand jurors now,” he said.
The upcoming problem, Schmidt believes, is the backlog of cases. “Whoever is in office come Jan. 1 is going to have to deal with a backlog of jury trials because those defendants are sitting in jail,” he said. “The real question is who do you want to run these trials?”
Swanson agreed that the pandemic has impacted the criminal justice system. “March 15 everything kind of went sideways,” he said.
One positive from the shutdown was that it forced attorneys and courts to become more digital. “It’s been a God-send for me and my staff,” he said.
Swanson also said he structured the office to ensure the maximum safety.
“We were able to get the staff moving on a rotating basis, keeping everybody separate from everyone else, so that if somebody got sick it didn’t take the whole office out,” he said.
Swanson noted that the District Attorney Association was able to provide some guidance for his office.
He said things are now moving ahead. “We’ve been pretty active since July 15 with our grand jury,” he said. “We’re still working, trying to negotiate cases.”
Like Schmidt, Swanson agreed there is a lot of cases that have backed up. “At the end of the day, we have one county court judge, so we’re going to have a backlog for some period of time,” he said.
Swanson said he believes he is the best person to deal with the backlog. “Who do you want handling those cases? Somebody who’s run the office for the last five years or somebody who’s worked out of their house as an attorney with no employees,” he asked.