Del. Courts Maintain Pandemic Rules But Plan For Easing

By Jeff Montgomery
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Law360 (September 4, 2020, 2:30 PM EDT) -- Delaware's chief justice on Friday ordered pandemic-related courthouse and court activity restrictions kept in place for another 30 days, but also said the state will seek to resume jury trials and relax other measures in October — provided the spread of the disease remains under control.

Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr.'s order marked the sixth extension since court buildings were closed for routine public access March 16 under an emergency declaration driven by the local and global spread of the novel coronavirus. It followed by a day Gov. John Carney's similar extension of statewide public health restrictions and recommendations.

Both orders noted the prospect of further, limited steps toward normal activities and procedures, with Justice Seitz saying that October could see civil and criminal jury trials resume, with new practices inside and outside the courtroom to shield or distance jurors and case participants.

Also planned for October as part of a modified third phase of a four-step court reopening plan is an increase in the number of people allowed in courtrooms, and an increase in the allowance for courthouse staffing to 75%, up from 50%.

"The jury plan builds on those changes and incorporates best practices to address the unique needs of jury service, allowing us to resume jury trials under the safest conditions possible," Justice Seitz said.

The courts adopted the second step of a phased reopening plan June 5, with a heavy emphasis on fever and health screening, cleaning, disinfecting and social distancing. Teleconferences and other remote, audiovisual alternatives have been used extensively, with speedy trial guidelines modified and relaxation of requirements for oaths, affidavits or similar court filing obligations.

The final phase calls for a return to full operations, although the court's plan cautions that a "new normal" will apply, potentially including some safety practices from earlier phases and increased use of technologies adopted during earlier stages of the emergency. Full court staffing and use of court buildings will resume.

Restrictions remain in effect outside the courtroom as well under Carney's order, released Thursday. The governor directed businesses to more strictly enforce face-covering requirements for employees, including a requirement for written support, such as from a physician, for employees seeking to work without a mask.

All state courthouses will require use of masks by those entering, with courtroom occupancy eased starting Oct. 5 to a maximum of 50 individuals, up from 10 under the current phase of the reopening plan. Remote proceedings will continue to be used extensively for incarcerated defendants or sentenced inmates, with provisions for in-person proceedings when requested.

--Editing by Abbie Sarfo.


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