Law360 (March 17, 2020, 8:03 PM EDT) -- With the coronavirus pandemic still picking up speed, federal court leaders met Tuesday via teleconference to authorize a pilot program for audio-streaming of civil case motion hearings.
The judiciary has also requested an additional $7 million in emergency funds from Congress in anticipation of an unexpected financial strain on the courts that could stretch out for months.
Speaking to reporters from Tulsa, Oklahoma, after a meeting of the Judicial Conference of the United States, U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan said more than half of the request was for individual mental health and drug treatment for people under probation supervision who typically meet in groups. If approved, some of the money would also go to IT costs for remote workers and for defense services.
"The main concern and issue is, do we have enough bandwidth to accommodate the increase in teleworking?" the judge said.
In her own Northern District of Oklahoma last week, Judge Eagan told reporters that a wave of jurors called in with concerns about serving.
"We're going to have difficulty going forward if this gets more drastic, in terms of getting jurors across the spectrum of ages," said Judge Eagan, the current chair of the conference, the court's top policy-making body
Last month, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts also organized a task force of judges, court officials and representatives from other agencies to share coronavirus information.
"Courts are reviewing their continuity of operations plans and pandemic/infectious disease plans to help them continue essential court operations," the court administration said in a statement following the meeting. In-person court training has also been canceled through the end of May.
Separately, the conference on Tuesday authorized a two-year pilot program that will evaluate live audio streaming of motion hearings in civil cases of particular public interest in a limited number of district courts.
Audio streaming will be subject to the discretion of the presiding judge and require the approval of the parties. It will also not occur in hearings with jurors or witnesses or for hearings involving confidential or classified materials.
While planning for the program predates the coronavirus pandemic, the timing of the announcement is apt. Along with innumerable other closures, a slew of federal and state courts have announced case delays, ordered telephonic hearings and placed restrictions on court visitors, among other measures.
At the Tuesday session, the 26-member body also approved an amended Code of Conduct for employees who work in federal public defender offices.
Mirroring #MeToo-era rule revisions last year for judges and court employees, the changes include an explicit statement that employees should not engage in sexual or other forms of harassment, or be subject to retaliation for reporting it.
--Editing by Michael Watanabe.
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