Some Courts Slow Reopening Plans as COVID Cases Rise

At a time when some states are backtracking on plans to restore business and government operations, a number of federal courts also are slowing plans to reopen courthouse doors as coronavirus (COVID-19) case numbers escalate in many states.

In recent weeks, federal courts, especially in Sun Belt “hot spot” states, have issued orders extending courthouse closures, postponement of jury trials, and the use of video and teleconferencing for most or all proceedings. Most of the orders cited rising COVID-19 numbers.

“Unfortunately, the last month has seen an increase in the rate of spread across the state, and the rolling seven-day average of new cases is at an all-time high,” wrote Chief Judge Daniel P. Jordan III, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, in a July 1 order. The court postponed all but one jury trial until August.

The Northern District of Texas, which in early June successfully staged a criminal jury trial using social distancing measures, postponed all jury trials scheduled for July in the district’s Dallas courthouse.

Courts in Florida, Arizona, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina all have issued orders postponing a return to full courthouse operations. Numerous courts outside the Sun Belt also have slowed resumption of jury trials, even where COVID-19 case counts have plateaued.

“We have definitely hit the pause button,” said Chief Judge James K. Bredar, of the District of Maryland, where local COVID-19 cases have fallen since their peak. He hopes to hold a few small jury trials in August, to test out new safety procedures devised by the court.

Since the pandemic escalated in March, federal courts have responded in varied ways, depending largely on local conditions. While some continued to hold in-person proceedings, many districts closed courthouse buildings or curtailed public entry, conducting most proceedings by video or teleconference.

However, most courts have worked cautiously but diligently to resume in-person courtroom  proceedings, noting that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial. Efforts have included social distancing and mask mandates, building plexiglass barriers into courtrooms, and limiting how many people can share an elevator.

A memo sent to federal courts in late April proposed an exhaustive set of “gating” criteria for courts to consider as they gradually progress through four phases, or, reverse course to move into earlier phases if local conditions deteriorate.

The criteria included local public health agency recommendations, which rely on conditions such as total population, population density, number of people over age 60, the availability of intensive care unit beds, and confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

Even where courts have begun reopening courthouse doors, conditions remain fluid, judges and court staff said. “We are monitoring it daily,” said Chief Judge David C. Nye, of the District of Idaho, who recently reinstated a limit of 50 persons attending any one proceeding at the Boise courthouse after the COVID-19 warning for Boise was revised.

In the District of Arizona, jury trials have been indefinitely postponed in the Flagstaff courthouse, and customer service counters are closed in Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, and Yuma. “The number of daily diagnosed cases of COVID-19 have recently and considerably increased in the State of Arizona resulting from, among other factors, increased community spread,” a June 24 order noted.

In the Eastern District of Louisiana, which includes New Orleans, criminal and civil jury trials have been postponed until Oct. 5. A June 26 order cited “the severity of risks posed to the public, Court staff, and other Court agencies.”

In the Southern District of Florida, which includes Miami, jury trials and grand jury proceedings have been suspended until Oct. 13. “Judges are strongly encouraged to conduct court proceedings by telephone or video conferencing,” a June 29 order said.

And the Southern District of California, which includes San Diego, continued postponement of jury trials until mid-August. “Many of the circumstances giving rise to the judicial emergency have not abated,” said a July 13 order signed by Chief Judge Larry Alan Burns. “To protect the public safety and prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Chief Judge … hereby extends the judicial emergency for an additional period of 30 days.”

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