lll. Federal Court To Use COVID-19 Tests In Path Back To Trials

By Craig Clough
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Law360 (February 19, 2021, 4:28 PM EST) -- The chief judge of the Northern District of Illinois outlined a plan this week that includes administering COVID-19 tests to jurors and employees in an effort to let trials and hearings resume.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer provided details of the plan in a Wednesday order that will require "non-invasive" COVID-19 testing of all court employees and jurors at the Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago and the Stanley J. Roszkowski U.S. Courthouse in Rockford.

Ongoing COVID-19 safety protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing will remain in place, the judge said in a message that was issued with the order.

"Though we will continue to face challenges in the days and months ahead, I am grateful and hopeful that this testing program will be an effective measure in protecting the health and safety of all courthouse employees," Judge Pallmeyer said.

The Northern District of Illinois isn't the first jurisdiction to tiptoe into holding in-person trials and hearings, although many courts in the nation remain in a holding pattern while sticking to remote proceedings as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Western District of Texas Judge Alan Albright recently outlined pandemic safety protocols he set for an in-person patent jury trial, including mandatory daily COVID-19 testing and a live feed to limit the number of people in the courthouse. The trial was scheduled to begin this week before the snow and freezing temperatures in the Lone Star State caused power blackouts and other emergencies.

Harris County, Texas, has equipped an arena typically set up for rodeos for juror assembly, which helped the county hold more than 60 trials. Georgia plans to resume jury trials in March as long as the state's drop in COVID-19 rates continues and its vaccination plans remain on track, the head of the Georgia Judicial Council said recently.

Delaware's courts are currently in the second phase of a four-step reopening plan after making it to the third stage for a short time but then reverting to more restricted access when coronavirus cases spiked in the fall.

In Illinois, Judge Pallmeyer said the Northern District will use SHIELD Illinois, an organization that conducts coronavirus screening using a saliva test developed by University of Illinois researchers.

Results of the tests are available within 24 hours, and the district will begin testing a limited number of workers on Tuesday while expanding the program in the coming weeks, the judge said. Potential jurors will also be tested before reporting for voir dire.

Workers will be tested no more than twice a week, and the results will be provided only to the employees with the expectation that any workers testing positive will self-report their result, the judge said.

"This testing program will enable us to proceed with more in-person operations, including evidentiary hearings and trials, safely and will further protect the health and safety of courthouse employees and visitors," the judge said.

--Additional reporting by Rosie Manins, Cara Salvatore, Rose Krebs and Ryan Davis. Editing by Jill Coffey.

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

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