Court Battles

Courts delay trials, switch to video hearings amid coronavirus

Judges use a small wooden mallet to signal for attention or order.

Federal and state courts across the country are postponing trials and delaying other judicial proceedings as the American justice system sharply reduces activity in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. 

As the country seeks to limit person-to-person transmission, a majority of states have restricted or suspended jury trials and limited public access to hearings, while some jurisdictions have switched to telephone conferences as courthouses close their doors until further notice. 

“We have never seen anything like this in decades, arguably going back to the Spanish Flu,” said William Raftery, a senior analyst with the nonprofit National Center for State Courts, referring to the early 20th Century pandemic.

“We are early on in this,” Raftery said, adding that many statewide orders were issued just days ago. “We are going to start to see the ramifications on an hourly basis. We are in uncharted territory.”

The restrictions come as the pandemic has infected some 5,800 and killed 100 in the U.S., where every governor has now declared a state of emergency. The Trump administration has recommended that no more than 10 people congregate, as a way to stem the highly contagious disease from spreading.

Judicial orders announcing the rollbacks have upended the maxim of American law that “justice delayed is justice denied,” as judges across the country determine that protecting the nation’s health outweighs the public’s interest in speedy trials and efficient rulings.

Within the federal court system, the Western District of Washington, which has recorded 50 deaths, the highest of any state, was the first to shutter its doors and suspend trials, grand jury proceedings and other hearings.

Since the Washington federal court’s March 6 announcement, U.S. courts in other parts of the country have followed suit.

In New York, which has the highest number of cases, 1,700, U.S. courts in and around New York City are among the federal courts to implement sharp cutbacks on activity. 

In the Southern District of New York, one of the most prominent federal trial courts in the country, all new criminal and civil jury trials are postponed at least until late April. Current trials are slated to continue, as are existing grand juries, and judges may continue to hold hearings at their discretion, though they are “strongly encouraged” to do so by telephone or video conference, a court order states.

In the nation’s capital, the Supreme Court on Monday postponed oral arguments scheduled for its March session, including a potentially landmark dispute over subpoenas for President Trump’s financial records, amid concerns over the outbreak.

The court in a statement said that the postponement of argument sessions in light of public health concerns is not unprecedented.

“The Court postponed scheduled arguments for October 1918 in response to the Spanish flu epidemic,” it said. “The Court also shortened its argument calendars in August 1793 and August 1798 in response to yellow fever outbreaks.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said it would suspend in-person oral arguments. The court said its judges, who typically operate in three-judge panels, may hold hearings by phone, postpone proceedings or decide cases without argument.

According to Raftery, contingency planning plus the advent of more sophisticated technology has made courts better prepared to operate during emergencies than they were prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or Hurricane Katrina.

“They learned the hard way,” he said.

Still, many court watchers say the legal community has never had to grapple with a disruption of this length and depth.

“The need to curtail the courts’ ongoing processes demonstrates how the biological threats we continue to face in the modern era can cripple our most basic governmental infrastructure in a way that conventional warfare has not even done,” said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer. 

“Now, all but the most urgent matters will be delayed for months, if not years, while we fight this pandemic,” he added.

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