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U.S. Courts Weigh Post-Virus Reopening Keyed to Conditions (1)

April 27, 2020, 9:29 PMUpdated: April 27, 2020, 11:53 PM

Federal courts are considering reopening their doors largely shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, as some states begin to do the same.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said Monday it had distributed guidance to its constituent courts on how to go about restarting operations. Those guidelines will depend “heavily” on the conditions in the communities surrounding those venues.

No specific timeline was put forth by the office.

“Some courts are beginning to consider preparations for on-site operations,” Administrative Office Director James C. Duff said in a statement announcing the initiative.

“Many courts, however, are not close to this process yet as the pandemic continues to have severe impact in their communities. But the guidelines reflect the fact that, for all courts, the safety of our employees and the public who utilize our services and facilities remains paramount,” Duff said.

The pandemic has slowed the operations of the federal court system, forcing suspension of jury trials, prompting proceedings to be conducted remotely, and closing the doors of some facilities to the public. The announcement comes as certain states have already started to relax restrictions on businesses.

The office’s guidance outlines steps the courts would take at their own pace, the administrative office said in the statement. Due to the decentralized nature of the judiciary, courts can determine their own operations. Accompanying the office announcement was a 29-page document dated April 24 and titled, “Federal Judiciary Covid-19 Recovery Guidelines.”

Those guidelines envision a four-phase process, starting with the recommendation that no court proceed more quickly than that of the public health community and local public safety agencies convey.

That process is to begin with no confirmed or suspected Covid-19 cases at the courthouse for at least 14 days and, in the event of one, a deep-cleaning of affected areas and the quarantining of potentially exposed employees. It also includes a sustained downward case count in the surrounding community over a 14-day period and “rescission of local restrictive movement and/or shelter-in-place orders.”

In-court proceedings would continue to be minimized during Phase One and vulnerable personnel should continue to work from home. Grand and petit jury restrictions would be loosened in Phase Two, with additional strictures being lifted during the next phase in those areas with no evidence of a viral resurgence.

Phase four, a return to normalcy, is reserved for that point when there’s been a public health announcement that the virus has been suppressed within the U.S.

The administrative office will also create a group of chief judges and court executives that will create protocols for resuming jury proceedings.

“Issues such as testing potential jurors, social distancing considerations during jury assembly, voir dire, jury deliberations, and many others are being considered,” Duff said. Guidance on those issues is forthcoming, the administrative office said.

The Federal Judges Association—a voluntarily national association of constitutionally-appointed judges—didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the administrative office plan.

(Updates with Administrative Office reopening criteria)