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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Holidays a Source of Worry for Courts This Year
Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 24
A possible spike in Covid-19 infections brought on by holiday gatherings and travel is just one of the reasons some federal trial courts are citing for their plans to cancel in-person proceedings.
“We are entering flu season. The holidays are in sight, too. There will be gatherings and travel, which will create opportunities for further spread,” Eastern District of Arkansas Chief Judge D.P. Marshall said in a Nov. 6 order halting jury trials.
Other courts also are again halting jury trials as Covid-19 numbers increase. For many courts, that means postponing the proceedings until after the start of the new year and avoiding the holidays.
In the Northern District of Illinois, which has reported several Covid-19 infections among staff, Chief Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer encouraged people to review U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines before Thanksgiving this year.
“My own celebration will be a very quiet one,” Pallmeyer wrote in a Nov. 23 letter. The court, which covers Chicago, previously halted jury trials due to rising Covid-19 rates.
The Western District of Washington, which covers Seattle, hasn’t issued an order pausing plans to hold in-person proceedings like jury trials yet, but Chief Judge Ricardo Martinez said the holidays are a source of concern.
“I’m really worried about the holidays coming up. Thanksgiving is such a traditional time for people to get together,” Martinez said in an interview, adding that Covid-19 fatigue seems to be setting in.
In the Southern District of New York, which covers New York City, the court won’t call jurors between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and potentially a few weeks after, said Judge Jed Rakoff. While the court would typically avoid jury trials around the holidays, the court widened the time range to account for the pandemic.
“Those will be the periods when the threat might be at its height,” he said.
The Eastern District of Virginia, which includes Alexandria, Norfolk, Richmond and Newport News, has suspended criminal jury trials until Jan. 19 absent any further order.
“Such pause in jury trial operations is necessitated by worsening local conditions and trend lines as well as expert analysis concluding that conditions will continue to worsen during the next two months as more people gather in indoor enclosed spaces,” Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Davis said in a Nov. 16 order.
Court operations continue, however, unless Covid-19 conditions worsen and dictate changes. Efforts should be made to reduce the number of people gathered for live proceedings, and judges are encouraged to utilize video conferencing “to the greatest extent possible,” Davis said.
Courts Quarantine, Too
Posted: Monday, Nov. 16
The temporary closure of the district’s Elkins and Martinsburg courthouses will allow for deep cleaning and sanitation, Chief Judge Gina M. Groh said Nov. 13.
Federal judicial districts nationwide have been adjusting their operations to account for the recent spike in positive tests.
At least six people involved in a federal jury trial in Texas have tested positive for Covid-19, pushing back resumption of the case until month’s end.
Federal courts in Illinois and Ohio also reported new rounds of Covid-19 positive tests and exposure among staff.
Some courts are shutting down because of the resurgent spread of Covid-19 through the general community.
The District of Maryland has suspended all in-person hearings and proceedings, beginning Monday. The district-wide shut down was required when the state’s seven-day test positivity rate crossed the 5 percent threshold, Chief Judge James K. Bredar said in a Nov. 11 order.
Bredar further cited the rapid rise of newly reported cases and the increase in hospitalizations, concluding that “it is appropriate to significantly reduce in-court operations.”
The Western District of Tennessee has bumped the monthly juror draw from the Eastern Division’s master wheel for juror selection by 100 slots, for a total of 350 names to be drawn per month.
Other courts may also find themselves expanding their roster of possible jurors once trials resume, Tom Gould, clerk for the Western District of Tennessee, said on Monday.
The Memphis-based judicial district has been carrying out a jury trial pilot program over the past several weeks, and the master wheel is the starting point of the jury selection process.
The court typically draws about 40 potential jurors for a typical criminal trial, Gould said. But many potential jurors are exempted from service because they’ve tested positive for Covid-19 or must otherwise quarantine or serve as a caretaker, in addition to all of the other non-pandemic reasons for exemption.
So between Covid-19 and an active court docket, “you can run through those names pretty fast,” Gould said.
The district is hearing about eight to 10 jury trials per month through the pilot program. The proceedings have gone well, without having to pause for positive tests, Gould said.
Covid-19 Spike Plagues Dirksen Courthouse
Posted: Thursday, Nov. 5
A number of workers in Chicago’s federal courthouse have tested positive for Covid-19 over the past week, according to advisory letters from the Northern District of Illinois.
Chief Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer announced Wednesday that two employees and one court security officer at the Dirksen Courthouse recently tested positive for the virus. That’s on top of another CSO whose positive test was reported Nov. 3, as well as three courthouse employees and one visitor whose positive tests were reported Nov. 2.
Jury trials at the Northern District have already been suspended due to the recent spike in Covid-19 cases but further restrictions may be needed if trends continue, Pallmeyer said in Wednesday’s letter.
The Dirksen Courthouse is also home to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which hasn’t released its own information about affected employees.
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