Federal Courts Plot Out How They'll Decide To Reopen

By Kevin Penton
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Law360 (April 27, 2020, 10:50 PM EDT) -- The federal courts will rely on data from public health officials to gauge the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in their individual jurisdictions and determine how quickly to restore operations, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said in guidelines issued Monday.

Courts should follow a four-phase process for returning operations to how they were before the novel coronavirus tore through the U.S. and upended life, the federal agency said, advising courts to use data from state and local officials and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in deciding whether to gradually reopen or to leave things as they are.

Factors courts should consider include suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases in a court facility, whether a community's cumulative COVID-19 case counts are on a downward trend over a two week-period, and the status of local orders on how freely people are allowed to move, according to the agency.

"The health and welfare of each judiciary employee, contractor and member of the public that enters our facilities should be paramount in the decisions that are made as these guidelines are implemented," the agency said.

A group of chief judges and court executives are expected to develop protocols for how grand jury and trial jury proceedings can resume, the agency said.

"Issues such as testing potential jurors, social distancing considerations during jury assembly, voir dire, jury deliberations and many others are being considered," James C. Duff, the agency's director, said in a statement Monday.

In the first phase laid out in the guidelines, courthouses are closed to the public, most employees are working remotely and most proceedings are postponed. In the second phase, additional court filings and proceedings may occur, and people not considered particularly vulnerable to the disease may physically return to work. In the third phase, courtrooms reopen and additional employees return to the office while individuals observe social distancing, wear masks and take other precautionary measures. And in the final phase, court operations return to "normal," the agency said.

"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.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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