COVID-19 Relief Bill Would Expand Remote Court Hearings

By Andrew Kragie
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Law360 (March 25, 2020, 7:18 PM EDT) -- The U.S. Department of Justice would receive an extra $1 billion and the federal courts would get $7.5 million in a massive coronavirus relief bill that also would allow video or teleconferencing in some criminal hearings, according to a draft of the bipartisan deal reached early Wednesday.

The relief bill would offer some $2 trillion to help many sectors weather the expected physical and economic toll from the coronavirus. The judiciary is in line for a small chunk as much of its operations shift to remote work because of social distancing guidelines, and courts would be authorized to hold remote hearings for certain criminal proceedings.

The bill would designate $500,000 for the U.S. Supreme Court, which a spokeswoman said would help with "software licenses, bandwidth and hardware such as laptops, monitors, mobile phones" as well as "longer-term upgrades to the court's telecommunications infrastructure necessary to maintain widespread telework for a longer period of time."

Another $6 million would go to federal courts and programs, and $1 million to federal public defenders. A spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said the judiciary planned to spend about a third of that money to boost telework capabilities and network capacity.

Most of the funding would go to probation and pretrial services as they shift from group to individual drug and mental health treatment and boost their use of private labs for drug testing, spokesman David Sellers told Law360, as the judiciary tries to follow social distancing guidelines.

A provision of the bill would allow for remote proceedings, by videoconference or if necessary by teleconference, in situations including detention hearings, initial appearances, preliminary hearings, waivers of indictment, arraignments, release revocation proceedings, Rule 40 appearances, and misdemeanor pleas and sentencings. Felony pleas and sentencings also could be conducted remotely if they "cannot be further delayed without serious harm to the interests of justice."

The authorization for remote proceedings would apply until 30 days after President Donald Trump terminates his March 13 national emergency declaration for COVID-19. It could be applied nationwide or district by district.

"The courts can't operate with the usual in-person proceedings and also protect the health and safety of court staff, counsel, defendants, the prison population, the marshals and court security personnel during the pandemic," Sellers told Law360 in an email.

The bill would provide $1 billion for the U.S. Department of Justice, with $850 million funneled to state and local law enforcement agencies, including jails and prisons, to help cover employee overtime, personal protective equipment and inmate health care. Another $100 million would go to federal prisons for similar purposes. Some $50 million would go to federal law enforcement agencies, partly to cover the cost of bringing home employees who had been working abroad. U.S. attorneys' offices would receive $3 million to boost remote work capabilities.

The new funding and authorization for remote hearings in some criminal proceedings come as the judiciary grapples with the spread of coronavirus, putting trial courts in uncharted waters and potentially pushing parties to the settlement table.

The Supreme Court has closed to the public and delayed arguments scheduled for March. Several justices joined last week's Friday conference by telephone.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington has halted all in-person proceedings for the foreseeable future and shifted to fully remote work.

New York state courts on Tuesday reported 24 COVID-19 diagnoses, including judges, attorneys, a witness, an inmate, a juror and, most recently, the Suffolk County district attorney. Los Angeles Superior Court closed for three days last week.

Law360 is tracking the latest court closures and restrictions due to COVID-19.

--Additional reporting by Daniel Siegal and Frank K. Runyeon. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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