Some Fed. Courts Slow Reopening Plans As Virus Cases Rise

By Khorri Atkinson
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Law360 (July 16, 2020, 8:05 PM EDT) -- The surge in reported COVID-19 cases in many U.S. states, especially in the Sun Belt region, in the past few weeks are forcing federal courts to rethink and slow down plans to reopen their courthouses.

Federal courts in "hot spot" states, like Louisiana, Florida and Texas, have recently issued standing orders extending previous courthouse closures, postponing jury trials and putting off onsite hearings and other judicial proceedings to curtail public gatherings and limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. The courts are continuing to use teleconference or video chat platforms to hold most or all proceedings.

In Louisiana, which issued a statewide mask mandate and new restrictions for businesses last week, Chief Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown of the Eastern District of Louisiana announced in late June that all civil and criminal jury trials are suspended until Oct. 5. and will be reset by each presiding judge. Judge Brown's June 26 order cited "the severity of risks posed to the public, court staff and other court agencies."

The Southern District of Florida, which also covers the metropolitan areas of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, Florida, ordered three days later that jury trials and grand jury proceedings are suspended until Oct. 13. The order also emphasized that individual judges may continue to hold hearings, conferences and bench trials in the exercise of their discretion but consistent with the standing order.

"Judges are strongly encouraged to conduct court proceedings by telephone or video conferencing where practicable," it added.  

The Southern District of California, which includes San Diego, has postponed jury trials until mid-August, according to an order Chief Judge Larry Alan Burns issued on Monday.

Meanwhile, jury trials have been indefinitely postponed at the District of Arizona's Flagstaff courthouse, and the Yuma courthouse has been authorized to conduct a limited amount of proceedings, according to a June 24 order.

Almost all of the court orders noted that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial, and efforts are being made to suspend the rules.

The Speedy Trial Act requires federal criminal trials to begin 70 days from charges being made public, but allows that deadline to be suspended for a number of reasons, including the judge's determination that a continuance would serve the "ends of justice." Some judges have gone into detail on what that means during a pandemic.

Since March, when COVID-19 cases began to spread across the country, numerous federal courthouses altered their procedures and enacted varied measures to restrict public access to curb the spread of the virus.

But the most dramatic move came when the U.S. Supreme Court postponed a series of oral arguments in March and April. The court later held arguments by teleconference in May and allowed the public to listen live, marking a bold experiment for the high court, which has long rebuffed calls to livestream its hearings.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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