Carine Reeves (right) sits with his lawyers at the Penobscot Judicial Center on Sept. 24. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Jury trials in three of Maine’s most populous counties will be delayed until next year due to the surge in coronavirus cases across the state. The delays come as the state’s court system faces a growing backlog of criminal cases that Maine’s chief justice has called “staggering.”

Mainers called for jury duty this month for criminal trials in Penobscot, Cumberland and York counties have been told to report for their duty next year instead. Jurors are to report in Bangor in January, in Portland in February and in Alfred in March or April, according to juror status notices on the court system’s website.

Criminal trials resumed in September after the courts drastically curtailed operations in mid-March due to the pandemic. And in early November, the court system pushed most non-criminal matters into 2021 so it could start clearing a backlog of 8,800 criminal cases that had grown 240 percent in less than a year.

Judges and staff in local courthouses are making the decisions to delay jury trials, not the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, according to Amy Quinlan, spokeswoman for the court system.

Even when they resume holding jury trials, courthouses are likely to get through them more slowly because because those trials now require two courtrooms to allow for social distancing — one where the trial takes place and one where jurors deliberate because jury deliberation rooms are too small to allow people to sit 6 feet away from each other.

The Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor and the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta appear to be the only two Maine courthouses that are large enough and have enough staff to hold two jury trials simultaneously.

But in Augusta, all matters at the Capital Judicial Center are on hold until Monday. The building originally closed for two days last week because an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

Since then, two more employees have tested positive and others are in quarantine, Quinlan said. Because of a staff shortage, the decision was made to shut down the courthouse this week.