As COVID-19 Cases Fall, Juries Get Back to Work

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  • Chief Judge James K. Bredar, District of Maryland
  • Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer, of the District of Colorado, presiding in an empty courtroom.

As coronavirus (COVID-19) case totals continue to decline in the United States, federal courts are rapidly expanding the number of jury trials and other in-person proceedings. But many court leaders remain uncertain about how quickly they can achieve a full return to pre-pandemic operations.

While some courts say social distancing requirements and other COVID-related issues are likely to limit the number of jury trials, at least for the next few months, an increase in vaccinations and the recent relaxation of federal guidelines are raising the possibility of a more rapid reopening schedule.

The Northern District of New York recently began its first criminal jury trial since March 2020, when the pandemic prompted many federal courts to scale back in-person hearings and trials. But the court is still assessing whether mask requirements and social distancing can be eliminated for jurors and the public after a year of pandemic restrictions.

“The court is committed to taking a measured approach to relaxing the current restrictions,” said Clerk of Court John M. Domurad. “We want to be careful. We’ve gained so much, we don’t want to lose what we’ve gained by shedding restrictions too quickly.”

For more than a year, federal courts have operated under a dynamic “gating” strategy, easing and tightening restrictions on courthouse procedures based on improvements or deterioration in local health conditions. Some courts resumed limited jury trials last summer, only to pull back during a winter resurgence of COVID.

In recent months, as infection and hospitalization rates have fallen sharply, dozens of courts have reported changing their status from Phase 1 or 2, in which limited in-person proceedings are conducted, to Phase 3 or 4, in which jury trials can be conducted. Officials caution that future changes could tighten restrictions again.

Even in districts where COVID numbers are falling most rapidly, some judges are reporting they still must overcome challenges to stage trials.

“COVID numbers in our district are plummeting, and that’s wonderful,” said Chief Judge James K. Bredar of the District of Maryland. “But our detention facilities continue to lock down entire housing units when even a single inmate tests positive. That means the detainees on that housing unit cannot be transported to courts, or even to the areas within the detention facility used for video hearings. So, even with improving virus metrics and climbing vaccination statistics, we are still disrupted by COVID.“

Two of the biggest quandaries facing courts are whether vaccinations can or should be required of jurors and court staff, and whether strict social distancing is still necessary as more adults become vaccinated. In interviews, most court leaders say they are not requiring vaccinations, but that they are taking a wait and see approach on relaxing other COVID precautions. All say that assuring jurors they are safe is a top priority.

“We believe that with the appropriate safety measures in place, the American public can feel safe to participate in jury trials as jurors, observers, or witnesses,” said Chief Judge Algenon L. Marbley, of the Southern District of Ohio, which resumed a full jury trial schedule on May 3. “The Court has not been asking about juror vaccination, but we may do so in the future.”

Courts are still unclear how recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may alter their decision-making. Noting that those with vaccinations no longer need to wear masks, Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer of the District of Colorado said that courts still face difficult choices.

Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer, District of Colorado

“To what extent should courts accommodate fully vaccinated jurors who want to be socially distanced?” Brimmer asked. “Social distancing imposes many limitations on a court’s ability to return to normal. But it seems harsh to tell people who just a few weeks ago were being praised for their precautions that they now need to get over their qualms about having someone sit right next to them.”

Courtroom capacity also is affecting how quickly different districts can schedule jury trials.

The Southern District of Ohio has enough courtrooms to conduct eight jury trials simultaneously—three each in its Cincinnati and Columbus courthouses and two more in Dayton. In addition to outfitting each juror’s chair with plexiglass, the court gives each juror a sealed plastic bag that contains a mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, writing pad and pen. The court has sufficient space to put the public in overflow courtrooms if needed, and to allow jurors to maintain social distancing.

In the District of Minnesota, Chief Judge John R. Tunheim said, courthouses in Minneapolis and St. Paul each have only one courtroom fully retrofitted with plexiglass to protect jurors. As a result, only one jury trial at a time is being held in each city. A total of three courtrooms are needed for each trial, to accommodate social-distancing needs.

Chief Judge John R. Tunheim, District of Minnesota

Beginning Aug. 1, all courtrooms in Minnesota will be authorized for civil trials, which can fit the required eight-member juries in a standard jury box, but at present, expanding the number of criminal jury trials would require additional installation of plexiglass barriers.

“We still want to keep the number of people in the courthouses to a minimum to prevent spread,” Tunheim said. “We are using at least two other courtrooms for each trial – one for jury deliberations and the other for the public/media to watch the trial without being in the courtroom. I am anticipating utilizing the single courtroom plan for criminal trials through the end of the summer and then reassess.”   

Even a limited capacity to hold jury trials can have an additional benefit in completing court business. In the District of Colorado, listing cases as pilot trials or backup pilot trials has greatly facilitated settlement of cases.

Read the Series

This is the sixth in a series of articles about how federal courts are working to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

“Until a case gets on the calendar, it’s not going anywhere,” Brimmer said. “So being able to hold even some jury trials is helping us reduce our backlog.”

Court officials emphasize that they are making every effort to protect jury and public safety. Courts, they say, are ready to deliver justice even as the COVID crisis winds down.

“We have done everything possible to make our facilities safe and will continue to be vigilant about health and safety,” Tunheim said. “I would also say that our criminal justice system is vitally important. Defendants have a right to a fair and speedy trial, so despite the challenges, it is important that we move forward with trials and hearings.”

Related Topics: Judges & Judgeships, Jury Service

More from: info@uscourts.gov

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    The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced challenges in its efforts to accomplish three critical information technology (IT) modernization initiatives: the department's health information system, known as the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA); a system for the Family Caregiver Program, which is to support family caregivers of seriously injured post-9/11 veterans; and the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) that collects and stores information and is used for processing disability benefit claims. Specifically, GAO has reported on the challenges in the department's three previous unsuccessful attempts to modernize VistA over the past 20 years. However, VA has recently deployed a new scheduling system as part of its fourth effort to modernize VistA and the next deployment of the system, including additional capabilities, is planned in October 2020. VA had taken steps to address GAO's recommendations from its 2014 report to implement a replacement system for the Family Caregiver Program. However, in September 2019, GAO reported that VA had yet to implement a new IT system that fully supports the Family Caregiver Program and that it had not yet fully committed to a date by which it will certify that the new IT system fully supports the program. In September 2015, GAO reported that VA had made progress in developing and implementing VBMS, but also noted that additional actions could improve efforts to develop and use the system. For example, VBMS was not able to fully support disability and pension claims, as well as appeals processing. GAO made five recommendations aimed at improving VA's efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS; however, as of September 2020, VA implemented only one recommendation. VA's progress in implementing key provisions of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (commonly referred to as FITARA) has been uneven. Specifically, VA has made progress toward improving its licensing of software and achieving its goals for closing unneeded data centers. However, the department has made limited progress toward addressing requirements related to IT investment risk management and Chief Information Officer authority enhancement. Until the department implements the act's provisions, Congress' ability to effectively monitor VA's progress and hold it fully accountable for reducing duplication and achieving cost savings will be hindered. In addition, since fiscal year 2016, GAO has reported that VA faces challenges related to effectively implementing the federal approach to, and strategy for, securing information systems; effectively implementing information security controls and mitigating known security deficiencies; and establishing elements of its cybersecurity risk management program. GAO's work stressed the need for VA to address these challenges as well as manage IT supply chain risks. As VA continues to pursue modernization efforts, it is critical that the department take steps to adequately secure its systems. The use of IT is crucial to helping VA effectively serve the nation's veterans. The department annually spends billions of dollars on its information systems and assets—VA's budget for IT now exceeds $4 billion annually. However, over many years, VA has experienced challenges in managing its IT projects and programs, which could jeopardize its ability to effectively support key programs such as the Forever GI Bill. GAO has previously reported on these IT management challenges at VA. GAO was asked to testify on its prior IT work at VA. Specifically, this testimony summarizes results and recommendations from GAO's issued reports that examined VA's efforts in (1) modernizing VistA, a system for the Family Caregiver Program, and VBMS; (2) implementing FITARA; and (3) addressing cybersecurity issues. In developing this testimony, GAO reviewed its recently issued reports that addressed IT management issues at VA and GAO's biannual high-risk series. GAO also incorporated information on the department's actions in response to recommendations. GAO has made numerous recommendations in recent years aimed at improving VA's IT system modernization efforts, implementation of key FITARA provisions, and cybersecurity program. VA has generally agreed with the recommendations and has begun to address them. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harriscc@gao.gov.
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Two Charged as Co-Conspirators for Nearly $1 Million COVID-19 Relief Fraud Scheme and Money Laundering
    In Crime News
    A New York man and an Oklahoma woman were arrested Wednesday in Buffalo, New York and Altus, Oklahoma, respectively, on a criminal complaint filed in the Western District of New York charging them for their roles in fraudulently obtaining and laundering nearly $1 million in funds from the COVID-19 relief Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Operation Legend Expanded to Indianapolis
    In Crime News
    Today, the expansion of Operation Legend was announced in Indianapolis.  Operation Legend is a sustained, systematic and coordinated law enforcement initiative in which federal law enforcement agencies work in conjunction with state and local law enforcement officials to fight violent crime.  The Operation was first launched on July 8 in Kansas City, MO., and expanded on July 22, 2020, to Chicago and Albuquerque, to Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee on July 29, 2020, and to St. Louis and Memphis on August 6, 2020.
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Secretary Blinken’s Meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar
    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Medicare Part B: Payments and Use for Selected New, High-Cost Drugs
    In U.S GAO News
    Hospital outpatient departments perform a wide range of procedures, including diagnostic and surgical procedures, which may use drugs that Medicare considers to function as supplies. If the drug is new, and its cost is high relative to Medicare's payment for the procedure, then hospitals can receive a separate “pass-through” payment for the drug in addition to Medicare's payment for the procedure. These pass-through payments are in effect for 2 to 3 years. When the pass-through payments expire, Medicare no longer pays separately for the drug, and payment for the drug is “packaged” with the payment for the related procedure. The payment rate for the procedure does not vary by whether or not the drug is used. Medicare intends this payment rate to be an incentive for hospitals to furnish services efficiently, such as using the most cost-efficient items that meet the patient's needs. Examples of Types of Drugs that Medicare Considers to Function as Supplies GAO's analysis of Medicare data showed that higher payments were associated with six of seven selected drugs when they were eligible for pass-through payments versus when their payments were packaged. For example, one drug used in cataract removal procedures was eligible for pass-through payments in 2017. That year, Medicare paid $1,824 for the procedure and $463 for the drug pass-through payment—a total payment of $2,287. If a hospital performed the same cataract removal procedure when the drug was packaged the following year, there was no longer a separate payment for the drug. Instead, Medicare paid $1,921 for the procedure whether or not the hospital used the drug. Of the seven selected drugs, GAO also reviewed differences in use for four of them that did not have limitations on Medicare coverage during the time frame of GAO's analysis, such as coverage that was limited to certain clinical trials. GAO found that hospitals' use of three of the four drugs was lower when payments for the drugs were packaged. This was consistent with the financial incentives created by the payment system. In particular, given the lower total payment for the drug and procedure when the drug is packaged, hospitals may have a greater incentive to use a lower-cost alternative for the procedure. Hospitals' use of a fourth drug increased regardless of payment status. The financial incentives for that drug appeared minimal because the total payment for it and its related procedure was about the same when it was eligible for pass-through payments and when packaged. Other factors that can affect use of the drugs include the use of the drugs for certain populations and whether hospitals put the drugs on their formularies, which guide, in part, whether the drug is used at that hospital. The Department of Health and Human Services reviewed a draft of this report and provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. Medicare makes “pass-through” payments under Medicare Part B when hospital outpatient departments use certain new, high-cost drugs. These temporary payments are in addition to Medicare's payments for the procedures using the drugs. They may help make the new drugs accessible for beneficiaries and also allow Medicare to collect information on the drugs' use and costs. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 included a provision for GAO to review the effect of Medicare's policy for packaging high-cost drugs after their pass-through payments have expired. This report describes (1) the payments associated with selected high-cost drugs when eligible for pass-through payments versus when packaged, and (2) hospitals' use of those drugs when eligible for pass-through payments versus when packaged. GAO reviewed federal regulations on pass-through payments and Medicare payment files for all seven drugs whose pass-through payments expired in 2017 or 2018 and that were subsequently packaged. All of these drugs met Medicare's definition for having a high cost relative to Medicare's payment rate for the procedure using the drug. GAO also reviewed Medicare claims data on the use of the drugs for 2017 through 2019 (the most recent available). To supplement this information, GAO also interviewed Medicare officials, as well officials from 11 organizations representing hospitals, physicians, and drug manufacturers, about payment rates, use, reporting, and clinical context for the drugs. For more information, contact James Cosgrove at (202) 512-7114 or cosgrovej@gao.gov.
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  • Justice Department Settles with Minnesota-Based Company to Resolve Discrimination Claims Under the Immigration and Nationality Act
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that it reached a settlement with WinCraft, Incorporated (WinCraft), a Minnesota-based sports manufacturing company with locations in Iowa, Florida, and Washington. The settlement resolves claims that WinCraft violated the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) by requiring lawful permanent residents to provide specific work authorization documentation without any legal justification because of their immigration status. 
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  • Medical Device Maker Merit Medical To Pay $18 Million To Settle Allegations Of Improper Payments To Physicians
    In Crime News
    Medical device maker Merit Medical Systems Inc. (MMSI), of South Jordan, Utah, has agreed to pay $18 million to resolve allegations that the company caused the submission of false claims to the Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE programs by paying kickbacks to physicians and hospitals to induce the use of MMSI products, the Department of Justice announced today. 
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  • Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers Remarks at the Pan Am 103 Press Conference
    In Crime News
    On this day 32 years ago, December 21, 1988, at 7:03 p.m. local time, a bomb destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 as it flew 31,000 feet above Lockerbie, Scotland. The massive Boeing 747 plane, known as the “Clipper Maid of the Seas,” exploded and fell to the ground in countless pieces scattered across 840 square miles, nearly the entire width of Scotland. The explosion killed all 259 people on board—243 passengers and 16 crew members, including 190 Americans. Falling debris claimed the lives of 11 Lockerbie residents on the ground, many of whom were in their homes and had just sat down for dinner.
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  • “Project Python” Mexican national convicted of meth smuggling
    In Justice News
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  • Justice Department Commends ASCAP and BMI’s Launch of SONGVIEW
    In Crime News
    On Dec. 21, 2020, The American Society of Composers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), the two largest performance rights organizations (PROs) in the United States, announced the launch of SONGVIEW, a “comprehensive data platform that provides music users with an authoritative view of public performance copyright ownership and administration shares for the vast majority of music licensed in the United States.”[1]
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  • CEO of Multibillion-dollar Software Company Indicted for Decades-long Tax Evasion and Wire Fraud Schemes
    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury in San Francisco, California, returned a 39 count indictment charging Robert T. Brockman, the Chief Executive Officer of an Ohio-based software company, with tax evasion, wire fraud, money laundering, and other offenses, announced Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Tax Division, U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson for the Northern District of California, and Chief of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigation Jim Lee. The charges stem from an alleged decades-long scheme to conceal approximately $2 billion in income from the IRS as well as a scheme to defraud investors in the software company’s debt securities.
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  • Justice Department Settles with School District to Resolve Disability Discrimination Complaint
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today announced that it reached an agreement with Spencer East Brookfield Regional School District in Spencer, Massachusetts to resolve the department’s lawsuit alleging disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
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  • Six Additional Individuals Indicted On Antitrust Charges In Ongoing Broiler Chicken Investigation
    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court in Denver, Colorado, returned a superseding indictment charging six additional defendants for their roles in a previously indicted conspiracy to fix prices and rig bids for broiler chicken products, and containing additional allegations against the previously charged defendants in the same conspiracy, the Department of Justice announced today.  The superseding indictment also charges one defendant with making false statements and obstruction of justice. 
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    In Travel
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  • Justice Department Proposes New Regulation to Update Firearm Definitions
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice today issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would update the definitions of “firearm” and related parts for the first time since 1968.
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  • Former Army Green Beret Sentenced for Russian Espionage Conspiracy
    In Crime News
    A Virginia man and former Army Green Beret was sentenced today to XX years in prison for conspiring with Russian intelligence operatives to provide them with U.S. national defense information.
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  • Seven North Carolina Tax Preparers Plead Guilty to Conspiring to Defraud the IRS
    In Crime News
    Seven Charlotte, North Carolina tax return preparers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States by preparing and filing false tax returns, announced Principal Deputy Assistant General Richard E. Zuckerman of the Justice Department’s Tax Division, U.S. Attorney R. Andrew Murray for the Western District of North Carolina, and Special Agent in Charge Matthew D. Line of the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI).
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  • Operation Legend: Case of the Day
    In Crime News
    Each weekday, the Department of Justice will highlight a case that has resulted from Operation Legend.  Today’s case is out of the Northern District of Illinois.  Operation Legend launched in Chicago on July 22, 2020, in response to the city facing increased homicide and non-fatal shooting rates.
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