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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Federal Courts Plan for Phased Reopening
Posted: Tuesday, June 16
The Wilmington-based District of Delaware will resume its pre-pandemic in-person operations in phases based on virus testing and the relaxing of state- and community-wide orders, District Judge Leonard P. Stark said Monday.
Under Phase I, limited grand jury operations may resume, visitors and court staff must continue to wear face coverings, and remote conferencing means should be used as much as possible.
Before the court enters Phase II, there should be a noted decrease of new positive Covid-19 tests in the local community and “continued relaxation” of state or local orders to restrict movement or to shelter in place, according to Delaware’s guidelines.
Phase II would restart jury trials and maybe even petty offense proceedings, which most federal courts, including Delaware, have suspended in the face of the public health crisis.
“Even after entering Phase Two, the court should consider returning back to Phase One if local conditions worsen,” Delaware’s guidance document advises.
New cases are on the rise in a number of states despite efforts to reopen their economies. Delaware has seen more than 10,000 positive cases of Covid-19, with 139 new cases being logged between June 14 and 16, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.
The Asheville-based Western District of North Carolina, the Knoxville-based Eastern District of Tennessee, and the Roanoke-based Western District of Virginia have also used court orders to announce that they are undertaking a phased approach to restarting in-person proceedings and jury trials.
Judiciary Releases Juries Guidance for Federal Courts
Posted: Wednesday, June 10
Pre-screening jurors based on health, using larger courtrooms for jury assembly, and virtual jury selection in certain circumstances are among the policies the federal judiciary suggest courts adopt when bringing back juries amid the coronavirus pandemic.
That Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts guidance came in a June 10, report for federal courts considering restarting in-person procedures during the outbreak that has killed more than 112,000 people in the U.S. and sickened nearly 2 million more. The AO guidance is the most comprehensive one issued to date for resuming federal court jury trials.
Restarting juries is up to each court and, in some cases, each division of that court.
“When each court determines that the time is right, the judiciary must reconstitute jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the administrative office said.
Its suggestions in the 19-page document are as broad as enhanced cleaning of court facilities and as specific as swapping identification pins for stick-on badges to limit contact with jurors.
One recommendation in the guidance that may be controversial, especially in criminal matters, is virtual jury selection.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers recently said virtual voir dire, when prospective jurors are questioned by attorneys or a judge during the selection process, “compromises the ability to get up-close and explore potential juror demeanor and bias as expressed through non-verbal communication.”
U.S. Courts Try Out Social Distancing, Video for Grand Juries
Posted: Monday, June 8
Socially distanced grand juries are one of the first actions federal courts are taking to return to in-person work after months of being shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic.
As of June 8, grand juries tasked with deciding whether to issue criminal indictments may resume in at least 10 of the 94 federal trial courts, according to a Bloomberg Law review of court orders. While a few courts will seat six to 12-person petit jury trials, grand juries, which are made up of 16 to 23 people, appear to be a popular first step in a return to in-person operations.
As federal courts introduce social distancing or video to restart the proceedings, however, the new formats are prompting some concerns for defense attorneys. Nina J. Ginsberg, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the use of video in grand juries is worrisome because it may disconnect jurors away from the gravity of the decisions they’re making.
Courts making use of video include the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, which will hold a grand jury this month, and Montana’s federal district court, which held its first grand jury this month. And they said those formats are perfectly sound.
“Grand juries are afforded a fair amount of flexibility in how they go about conducting their business,” said Charles E. Peeler, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, who worked on creating the new grand jury format using video.
—With assistance from Christina Brady, Perry Cooper, and Jordan Rubin
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