The federal courts are tackling the coronavirus threat, making scheduling changes, encouraging electronic filing, and restricting access to facilities, among other measures.
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Circuit Courts Split on In-Person Return
Posted: Sept. 22, 2021
Federal appeals courts are proceeding on divergent timelines as they grapple with when to return to in-person oral arguments.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit—based in Cincinnati—announced that its October arguments will be in-person. Only attorneys showing “good cause” will be allowed to argue remotely. Unvaccinated attorneys are allowed to argue in-person but must remain masked and socially distanced.
The Boston-based First Circuit took a different approach, announcing that all of its October arguments will be held virtually over video conference.
Meanwhile, two additional federal district courts announced that all employees must submit proof of Covid-19 vaccination: the Southern District of Ohio and the Middle District of Louisiana.
The Southern District of Ohio didn’t specify when the vaccine requirement would go into effect but said in its order that religious and medical exemptions will be allowed, along with the option to submit to twice-a-week Covid testing.
The Middle District of Louisiana’s order didn’t allow for a test-out option but will permit medical and religious exemptions. Its order goes into effect Oct. 29.
Trial activity and in-person hearings in the Middle District of Louisiana fell by more than 75% since the beginning of the pandemic, the court said in its order. It also disclosed that the remaining in-person activity has required a “more than three-fold” increase in resources to accommodate health and safety measures.
Court Works on Remote Intake, Court Proceeding Kiosks
Posted: Sept. 16, 2021
The Northern District of New York is taking two new initiatives inspired by operations during the pandemic.
The court is setting up a system for the public to schedule and conduct meetings with court personnel remotely over Microsoft Teams, with the goal of mimicking the experience at the court’s intake counter.
“This system aims to add a personal touch that cannot be achieved with a phone call,” the court said on Monday.
Meanwhile, the court is installing kiosks in local detention facilities to facilitate remote court proceedings, interviews, and attorney-client meetings. The kiosks will also enable documents to be signed in real-time, the court said.
Alaska Trial Court Suspends Jury Trials Amid Covid Spike
Posted: Sept. 9, 2021
The District of Alaska said it would suspend criminal and civil jury trials until Oct. 4 in light of a high number of new Covid-19 cases in the state.
The court cited a rate of more than 100 cases per 100,000 people in the state and said hospitals were operating at near capacity in a Sept. 7 order announcing the suspension.
“The Court must balance public health and safety with its duty to protect litigants’ rights and to resolve cases,” the court said. “COVID-19, and particularly the Delta variant, has spread rapidly in Alaska and throughout the United States during the past several weeks.”
Their order comes as district courts across the country readjust their procedures amid the spread of the more transmissible delta variant.
Courts Adapt to ‘New Normal’ of Covid Restrictions
Posted: Sept. 2, 2021
The Middle District of Tennessee warned in an order that low vaccination rates and the rise of more dangerous Covid variants is forcing it to confront the reality that the pandemic is here to stay.
“For the foreseeable future, living with COVID-19 will continue to be our new ‘normal,’” Chief Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw Jr. wrote in the order.
The court announced that it would not automatically postpone jury trials due to Covid-19 but would maintain existing precautions including mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing, and medical screening. Judges will be able to postpone cases on an individual basis due to lack of space or other pandemic considerations.
Other federal district courts across the country are also adjusting procedures to confront the possibility that the pandemic will not ease in the near future.
The District of the Virgin Islands, which canceled all jury trials and grand juries last month, announced that it’s again open for business with modified restrictions such as no in-person document filing. The District of Maine abandoned its plan to only require masks for vaccinated individuals in areas of high Covid transmission. It will instead require masks for everyone regardless of local health conditions or vaccination status.
In the District of Alaska, people serving on a grand jury will no longer have to travel to Anchorage. Instead, grand jury sessions will be conducted in-person from Anchorage with the option for individuals to join on a video feed from the Fairbanks or Juneau courthouses if that’s closer to their residence.
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