Federal district courts are slowing the wheels of justice in historic ways as they grapple with sick employees and other fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
District, or trial, courts make up the bulk of the federal judiciary and are uniformly on the front lines for both criminal and civil cases.
A Bloomberg Law analysis of orders and court websites shows that despite their decentralized nature and freedom to formulate their own responses, the majority of the nation’s 94 U.S. district courts are taking similar steps to address the swiftly unfolding crisis.
The analysis also shows that, as of March 26, 85 have restricted access, 79 have encouraged or required teleconferences for hearings for certain proceedings. Additionally, 86 have halted jury trials, including courts in New York—where nearly half of all American cases have been diagnosed—plus California, and Washington state, locations where the virus hit early and hit hard.
As of 7:00 a.m. EDT Friday, 83,417 people in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus-borne Covid-19 and 1,218 have died, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. Globally, nearly 541,000 cases have been confirmed and there have been more than 24,600 deaths.
At least three federal trial courts have reported an employee was diagnosed with the virus, according to the analysis.
Federal district courts handled about 390,500 cases last year according to the judiciary’s annual report, which was an increase of 6% from the previous year.
Canceling or postponing jury trials is the most common response to the virus among the district courts and the decision is often coupled with an exemption from a law that ensures defendants’ right to a speedy trial.
Many of the orders and notices coming from the courts specifically mentioned exemption from the Speedy Trial Act, which mandates that criminal trials begin at a certain time and cannot be delayed.
The Western District of Washington was one of the first courts to issue such an order after an outbreak of the virus outside Seattle. In it, Chief Judge Ricardo S. Martinez reasoned “ends of justice served by ordering the continuances outweigh the best interests of the public and any defendant’s right to a speedy trial.”
In a March 19 memo to federal courts and their staff, Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts James Duff recommended, among other things, conducting “jury proceedings only in exceptional circumstances to comply with social distancing and restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people.”
The second most common approach to the virus by district courts is limiting court access. Those orders and notices range from prohibiting court access for people who had recently traveled to locations that have faced large outbreaks of coronavirus, to closing buildings to the public entirely.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, for example, closed its Chicago courthouse to the public shortly after an employee was diagnosed with coronavirus.
Chief Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer in a March 17 letter said the local health department advised there was “no need to close the Dirksen Courthouse at this time,” but the court later restricted public entry to the courthouse March 20.
Other courts, however, like the Northern District of West Virginia, restricted access to only those who had traveled internationally or had flu-like symptoms. West Virginia was the last U.S. state to have a confirmed case of Covid-19.
Teleconferencing Ramps Up
Conducting hearings by phone or video, while a common response, is often limited to a judge’s decision or “encouraged” by the court. But several have been more forceful.
Washington’s Western District on Wednesday laid out four levels of remote access for criminal defendants who are constitutionally entitled to that speedy trial. In-court proceedings have been classified as Level One and have been deemed “not feasible” based on Covid-19 contagion guidance, the court said.
Levels Two through Four will be employed instead, ranging from a skeleton courthouse hearing where a defendant videoconferences from a separate room, to a fully remote, telephone-only hearing where relevant exhibits would be exchanged by email.
The District of Maine, with operations in Portland and Bangor, also issued an order Wednesday that expressed the court’s concern that the current method of videoconferencing is both untested and likely to contribute to disease spread.
The court will rely on telephonic conferences until further notice, a method the court said doesn’t require advance scheduling with jail staff and allows judges and court staff to avoid travel and congregation in common spaces.
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