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Utah County Attorney: Temporary suspension of jury trials is a ‘threat to our liberties’

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said the temporary suspension of jury trials in Utah during the COVID-19 pandemic “should send freedom-loving Americans into sheer panic” and urged the Utah Supreme Court to immediately reinstate the judicial proceeding.

Beginning in March, the Utah Supreme Court issued a series of administrative orders “to bring uniformity to the operation of the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic” and to “identify mission-critical functions of the judiciary at each court level, ensure that the courts remain open to perform those functions, and to do so in a manner that promotes the health of the public and all court participants.”

In an administrative order on May 11, the state Supreme Court instructed district and justice court judges to not conduct “any criminal jury trials (whether the defendant is or is not in custody) or civil jury trials pending further administrative orders.”

Since that order, the Utah County Attorney’s Office has accused nearly 1,200 individuals “of felonies or class A misdemeanors in district court and approximately 700 individuals with class B misdemeanors in the justice court,” Leavitt wrote in a letter to the Supreme Court justices.

“Because of your order, their only option (along with the several thousand already pending defendants and victims when the Order was issued) is to take the plea deal offered or put their life on hold for literally years while the court system seeks to unravel the backlog the jury trial suspension has created,” the Utah County attorney wrote on Sept. 2.

“Defendants are not the only Americans suffering because of your order,” Leavitt continued. “Victims as well must wait indefinitely for the resolution of their cases. Police keep us safe on the streets, only to find their hard work bottlenecked and stopped by the judiciary.”

Leavitt, who has long warned about the dangers of phasing out jury trials in favor of plea bargains, asked that the justices “restore our individual and collective rights to a speedy trial and to a jury trial, and that you do so now.”

“Further, I would urge you to dialogue with us (prosecutors, defense attorneys, and trial court judges) so that together we may set forth a plan to safely conduct the jury trial in a manner that can and will be implemented with uniformity in every court,” he wrote.

In an interview Thursday, Leavitt said he felt compelled to write the letter because “no one was speaking up” about the suspended trials and he wanted to “have the issue be heard.”

“This is probably the first time in American history when courts across our lands have done this,” he said. “It’s not a hypothetical threat to our liberties, it’s a literal threat to our liberties.”

Leavitt added that there were reasonable measures courts could take to “have an in-person trial and keep people safe,” including rearranging the courtroom to spread out jurors and having the public attend through video conferencing.

“There are ways to have a jury trial in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “If we truly valued a jury trial, we’d find a way to have a jury trial. The problem here isn’t the pandemic. The problem is that we don’t value jury trials enough. Because when we want to do something, we find a way to do it.”

Leavitt said he received an email in response to his letter that said the justices would address his concerns during their next meeting. He added that a handful of county attorneys had reached out and thanked him for writing the letter.

“And I anticipate that the Supreme Court, who care about rights, who care about process, I think that they’ll be responsive to the letter,” Leavitt said.

Day of Caring deploys hundreds of volunteers to make a difference during pandemic

If there is one thing individuals and organizations have learned through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is you can still serve your neighbor.

Thursday marked the annual United Way of Utah County Day of Caring, with a few modifications and lots of volunteers.

“We wondered if we would have a Day of Caring this year,” said Bill Hulterstrom, president and CEO of United Way of Utah County. “But it has been very gratifying to work with such wonderful partners who realize that we need to reach out more than ever right now.”

This year’s Day of Caring included 37 in-person projects with volunteers from more than 20 companies and organizations. In addition, volunteers will be assembling more than 2,000 STEM, education and emotional health kits to be distributed at local schools and nonprofits. In total, there were an estimated 1,300 volunteers participating, according to United Way numbers.

“We worked with our partners on both sides of each project to make safety modifications,” Hulterstrom said. “There are still needs we cannot neglect, and we’re focusing on meeting those needs while implementing social distancing and other changes.”

Hulterstrom said while the projects may look a little different this year, the caring continues, and the traditions of Day of Caring will go on despite the pandemic. He also said that this year, instead of the iconic Live United T-shirts the volunteers usually wear, they wore Live United face masks.

This year’s focus was primarily on education. Several elementary schools in the county received playground upgrades as groups painted educational and social distance games on the pavement.

Groups like employees from Vineyard offered to make STEM kits. Vineyard provided 300 kits for kids to use in their classes.

“Vineyard City was grateful to be able to participate in the United Way of Utah County’s Day of Caring,” said Mayor Julie Fullmer. “With the uncertainty that this pandemic has created in so many homes, we wanted to find a way to bring something to our community’s doorsteps. We assembled laundry kits for people going without the basic need of clean laundry. The ability to have clean clothes and a clean place to sleep is something that provides people with barriers to sickness and disease, and paths to jobs.

“To solve today’s ever-growing complex problems, we will need people discovering more innovative solutions; this is why Vineyard is focused on becoming a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) city,” Fullmer added. “Many families and teachers are in difficult situations with schooling their kids and students at this time, and we hope that this brings a little cheer and creativity in to building solutions for our future.”

Vineyard wants to be a great part of helping its residents of the future.

“We are excited to partner with Vineyard City along with many other companies, during United Way of Utah County’s Day of Caring,” said Janie Brigman, corporate engagement and marketing director for United Way. “We are so grateful for Vineyard employees who took the time to make these educational kits to help students across the county. As a Vineyard resident myself, it is exciting to see my city giving back to the whole community.”

Employees from Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University and Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions helped with landscaping, cleaning and upgrading a number of nonprofit agencies through the valley as well.

“Who would have thought that we would have such an amazing response to Day of Caring during this unique year? As I visited schools and nonprofits, it was gratifying to see so many people who not only understand the community’s needs but have also found a meaningful way to help. What an inspiring day,” Hulterstrom said.

Brigman said United Way had the opportunity to work with some extraordinary companies.

“It is exciting to see how much these companies care and want to give back to our local community,” Brigman said.

Abby Perkins, EveryDay support coordinator, said United Way was overwhelmed by the community response.

“It was remarkable to see how everyone was so eager to be a part of improving the community by helping local schools and community partners,” Perkins said. “Over 2,000 kit projects were completed on Day of Caring, with the majority of the projects focused on the education and mental health of children in Utah County.”

The next big project for the United Way of Utah County is preparing for the holidays and the annual Sub-for-Santa program. According to Hulterstrom, they are expecting more participating families this year due to COVID-19.

Alpine School District gives 'robust' update to sexual harassment policy

The Alpine School District Board approved a new sexual harassment policy this week. This marked the first change in the policy since 2009 for the state’s largest school district.

Kimberly Bird, one of the public information officers for the district, characterized the new policy as a complete rewrite.

She also spoke about how robust the policy is, and how significant changes to the Title 9 act of 1972 prompted the rewrite. The policy not only will help employees be better reporters of sexual harassment, but also give due process to both complainants and respondents.

The main goal of the new policy, which was approved Tuesday, is to ensure that the district is providing a safe learning and work environment for both students and employees, according to Bird.

“This is going to help all of us to work better and to recognize our responsibility to report information,” Bird said. “It is also very clear in the description of what is deemed sexual misconduct and sexual harassment. The law is written in such a way that we would help take people through a complete investigation, make sure we have supportive measures in place if needed, offer appeal and offer grievance. It’s just a more robust policy than we have ever had.”

Through updating the policy, the district clearly defined and showed the process in which it will handle a claim of sexual harassment. Starting with how to submit a claim, it then identifies employees’ responsibility to report, the process for an investigation, possible discipline and remedies and supportive measures available for all parties.

While the sheer size of the Alpine School District could factor in to the importance of having a more clearly comprehensive sexual harassment policy, Bird said she would want this policy in place regardless of district size.

“What this policy offers is it’s fully comprehensive,” Bird said. “When you look at, ‘Who do I report something to? What’s an initial response by the district? What do decision makers do? How do I appeal? (And) What are my rights?’ It wouldn’t matter if I worked in a district of 10,000 or a district of 81,000 like Alpine is, I would want to have the same rights afforded to me given the due process I would need, or want, whether I was a respondent or a complainant.”

The policy prior to the district’s updated one was broken down by work classification, whether it be certified employees, students, classified employees or managerial employees. With the updated policy, the district was looking to establish individual rights and responsibilities so that people within the schools know what is expected of them.

As far as next steps for Alpine, the district will have its hands full with the training that will need to be done going forward, which Bird estimated could take between a year to 16 months. That involves not only the time for initial training, but also areas of specific instruction for investigation teams, decision makers, principals, teachers and students.

“We’ve got district level to be trained, we’ve got administrators to be trained, teachers, faculty, staff and then students,” Bird said. “We’ll utilize a lot of the summer time to do more broad training for the larger groups. We will then make sure to help our school principals to get this policy into handbooks on their websites, all of those different ways we can make sure we publish not only our policy but the processes and rules and regulations that govern it.”

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney injects himself into growing vaccination debate

United States Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT, called on the federal government on Wednesday to actively work “to resolve the debate (and) the uncertainty that so many Americans have about the wisdom of receiving vaccines” and to address the increasing number of parents who believe vaccines are harmful to their children.

During a U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing on the efficacy and timeline of using vaccinations to treat COVID-19, Romney said he believed there was a “growing sentiment, I think, across our country, of people who are, if you will, ‘anti-vaxxers,’ people who are avoiding vaccines.”

“And I have been approached during visits to my state by people who have whole books that are written describing why vaccines are bad, why they’re made from adulterated sources,” the Utah senator said. “And I won’t go into all the details, but it’s not like just a social media phenomenon. There are literally books out there that are written to describe why vaccines are bad.”

Romney suggested that the federal government consider mounting a “much more aggressive campaign” on social media to resolve uncertainties and debunk misconceptions about vaccines, noting that similar campaigns have been launched to address the dangers of tobacco.

“And I wonder if it does not make sense for our government to put out a very comprehensive effort to dispel this growing sense of vaccines being bad,” said Romney.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who testified during Wednesday’s Senate committee hearing, told Romney that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services currently uses a “three-tiered approach” to “improve vaccine confidence,” including “through research and evaluation, collaboration and partnerships, communication strategies and knowledge dissemination.”

While roughly 1 in 10 parents “refuses at least one childhood vaccine,” according to Adams, he noted that the vast majority of these parents are “vaccine hesitant” and not the “anti-vaxxers” to whom Romney was referring.

“And that’s who we need to really work on,” said Adams. “And we need to work on educating them and engaging them and being compassionate with them and patient with them to answer their questions.”

Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health, said that skepticism about vaccines “has been, of course, an issue for our country not just in the season of COVID-19, but before that.”

“And it is heartbreaking, and I must say, frustrating, and sometimes even causes you a little bit of anger and frustration that this kind of misinformation is so readily spread by people who have another agenda,” Collins said. “And we have a hard road to go to try to counter that when so many people don’t see, in their own experience, the reason why this is such a lifesaving activity.”

According to Collins, there are six vaccine candidates currently “engaged in large-scale U.S. trials” aimed at determining the efficacy of the vaccines in treating COVID-19.

The six experimental vaccines have all “undergone rigorous testing in animals” and “testing in a small group of humans,” Collins said. Three of them are almost ready for a stage where 30,000 volunteers “located in areas where the virus is actively spreading” would be injected, half with a placebo and half with the vaccine.

“These six vaccines represent three different scientific approaches,” he said. “Having this mix of strategies is the best insurance against some unexpected problem with safety or efficacy. We hope and expect that more than one of these will succeed.”

Adams said public confidence in the safety of vaccines would be crucial in preventing surges in coronavirus cases this fall, which he called “the most important flu season in our lifetimes.”

“My central message today is this: equitable vaccination of America’s children and adults against preventable diseases is safe, smart, good for the economy and critical in our fight against COVID-19,” said Adams.

“And the science here is clear,” he continued. “Vaccines save lives, and the U.S. vaccine supply is the safest in history and the safest in the world.”