Judges Warn It's Not 'Business As Usual' Amid Pandemic

By Aebra Coe
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Law360 (March 24, 2020, 7:13 PM EDT) -- Lawyers must understand that state and federal courts are not equipped to handle "business as usual," and they should think twice before labeling a matter or motion an emergency as courts grapple with stringent new social distancing efforts, a state supreme court justice and federal bankruptcy judge said Tuesday.

Courtrooms across the country are increasingly empty as judges handle more cases remotely because of the coronavirus outbreak. (AP)

Courts are doing the best they can to adapt and implement remote court proceedings as many courthouses close their doors to visitors, but attorneys should expect delays in most proceedings for the next month at least as communities work to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, said judges serving on a webinar panel presented Tuesday by the American Bar Association.

"Our courts should not be operating like it's business as usual. Traffic at the courthouses should be drastically decreased," said North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley.

Beasley has implemented a series of orders since March 13 restricting activity in and access to the courts under her purview, extending filing deadlines, postponing trials, postponing any hearings that can't be conducted remotely unless they are necessary to protect the due process of law or the health and safety of the public, and postponing less urgent matters like foreclosures.

Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Stong, who serves in the Eastern District of New York, said she too has postponed matters that are not urgent as staff move to remote working and judges work to conduct hearings from afar.

"Truly urgent matters can and will be addressed," Stong said. "But you have to understand that not everything that feels urgent is. Pause before you file that letter or make that phone call. Be sure it's urgent."

The courts have been transitioning to remote operations, but it has not been completely smooth, Stong added. Last week the federal judiciary moved to remote working and the system that was being used crashed, making it "very difficult" to get work done, she said.

In a typical day, her courthouse would see numerous people coming and going and would conduct 50 to 100 hearings in a day.

"You wouldn't see that today or this week or I suspect in the near future because like every court that I'm aware of we have made dramatic changes in how we're proceeding," she said. "The bottom line, of course, is safety. Courts are here to do the work of the justice system and we will, but it's got to be safe."

Indiana Judge Heather Welch said her trial courts in Marion County have long used an electronic filing system and have now moved civil cases to telephonic or video conferencing because of the pandemic. They have also set up a process for the 5,000 or so protective orders the courts receive in a year to be done online.

"Lawyers want to know what they can do to help the courts. If you can be patient and understanding, unfortunately things will be delayed," Welch said. "Courts will deal with emergencies, but we have a lot on our plates."

Now could be a good opportunity, she added, for litigants to reach out to opposing parties to see if resolution is appropriate in light of the circumstances.

Washington's Western District federal court has also gone remote, according to District Court Executive William M. McCool.

The court has minimal in-person staff performing minimal paperwork in the office and then returning home. The rest of the court staff are working remotely, McCool said.

Many documents are filed online, but court staff have installed self-service drop boxes in the court lobby with instructions so that the filing of physical documents can be done with limited human contact, he said.

"The court remains open for business," that business has just largely moved online and over the phone, McCool said. "We've become a 24/7 operation."

--Editing by Amy Rowe.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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