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Federal Courts Seek Financial Help in Response to Virus (1)

March 17, 2020, 6:07 PMUpdated: March 17, 2020, 9:42 PM

The federal judiciary asked Congress for $7 million in additional funding to tackle the impact of the coronavirus pandemic upon its operations over the next three months, as courts across the country limit business.

More than half of the additional request would go to transitioning from group to individual drug and substance abuse treatment programs for defendants under federal supervision, U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan said. She chairs the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference, which held its biannual meeting via conference call on Tuesday.

The Judicial Conference, which is the policy making body of the federal judiciary, typically holds its meetings at the Supreme Court, which is closed to outside business and is delaying the next around of oral arguments in response to the spreading virus.

If approved by lawmakers, the additional money would go toward making sure judicial employees have the “bandwidth” for working remotely, in particular the Federal Defender Service, which defends criminal defendants in federal courts, she said.

“Obviously this is a very fluid situation, but we have a unique role because we have to uphold the rule of law and keep the courthouses open, but we have to protect both the public and our employees,” Eagan said. A 2001 nominee of President George W. Bush, she sits at the federal courthouse in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

More than 4,200 U.S. cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and 75 deaths have been confirmed to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention according to its most recent update on Tuesday. The pandemic has touched 53 American jurisdictions including 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. West Virginia is the lone remaining state without a confirmed case, according to the CDC data.

Because of the decentralized nature of the federal courts, individual venues across the country have been responding to the coronavirus in a range of different ways. Those include delaying hearings and jury trials, as well as restricting court access for those who have traveled to countries impacted by the virus.

Most courts have taken action to address the pandemic, Eagan said, but the judiciary isn’t aware of any judge or court employee that has been diagnosed with the virus as of Tuesday.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which has released guidance for courts and created a task force to address the virus, is collecting those responses for the public on its website.

With or without the funding, however, Eagan said she foresees potential issues ahead with jury trials depending on how long the virus spreads across the country. Jurors called her Tulsa, Oklahoma, district court last week asking to be excused from a trial for fear of getting the illness.

“Fortunately, in that case, the attorneys asked for an non-jury trial, but we’re going to have difficulties going forward if this gets more drastic in terms of getting jurors who are across the spectrum of ages for a jury panel,” Eagan said.

Misconduct, Court Access

In addition to the virus, the conference members also acted on other issues affecting the courts, including workplace misconduct, court access, and civics education.

The conference Tuesday approved an amendment to public defender’s code of conduct that prohibits sexual misconduct and harassment, which means all judiciary employees now have that same requirement. The approval was the final of 30 recommendations from Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group report in June 2018, Eagan said.

Those issues were first visited after sexual misconduct allegations against former Judge Alex Kozinski, who was on the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

But sexual harassment has recently come up again after another federal judge was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior. Late Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who was also on the Ninth Circuit was recently accused of harassment by a former law clerk.

The conference also signed off on a two-year pilot project for court audio streaming in an effort to increase public access. That project will be limited to motion hearings in select district courts, Eagan said.

(Updates with additional reporting throughout. )

To contact the reporters on this story: Madison Alder in Washington at malder@bloomberglaw.com; Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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