Calif. District Courts Want Speedy Trial Act Deadlines Paused

By Dorothy Atkins
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Law360 (April 9, 2020, 11:17 PM EDT) -- California's Eastern and Central Districts have asked the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit to suspend Speedy Trial Act deadlines, arguing that their strained judicial resources won't allow them to comply in light of backlogs caused by the novel coronavirus.

In a seven-page letter, Chief U.S. District Judge Kimberly Jo Mueller, who presides over the state's Eastern District, told the judicial council Wednesday that the district is unable to comply with the Speedy Trial Act time limits due to its long-standing judicial emergency caused by judgeship shortages that have been made worse by the outbreak.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated our pre-existing emergency such that there simply are no other options for alleviating our calendar congestion, despite the many steps we have been taking to manage the current crisis since its onset," the letter says.

The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 establishes time limits for completing the stages of a federal criminal prosecution, including a rule that requires criminal trials to occur within 70 days of when charges are filed publicly against a defendant.

But Judge Mueller asked the council to suspend those rules, noting that 52 trials districtwide have already been continued since mid-March due to court closures caused by the pandemic. She added that she anticipates there will be a significant backlog of trials and motions once the courts reopen.

"Realistically, our preexisting backlog of motions and old cases will have grown given the wave of new motions occasioned by the pandemic, making it unlikely we will have been able to use enough of our time away from the courthouse to whittle the backlog down in any meaningful way," the letter says.

The judge also pointed out that California's Eastern District has only six active judges and two vacancies, despite its population of 8.5 million. Even if the vacancies were filled and the district could use visiting judges, that would not be enough to meet the deadlines, the letter says.

Judge Mueller's letter follows another letter written April 6 by Chief U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips, who presides over California's Central District. Judge Phillips similarly argued that meeting the Speedy Trial Act deadline is unfeasible in light of the outbreak.

Judge Phillips noted that the courts are operating under a limited capacity and that most staffers are working remotely. In addition, there is limited technological equipment available to allow all the judges in the district to hold video and teleconference hearings, the letter says.

"When the court regains full operations after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, we anticipate a significant backlog of trials," the letter says. "A suspension of the Speedy Trial Act's time periods is essential for cases filed within the next year."

Judge Phillips said the shortage of active judges in the district poses additional problems for managing the caseload. The district has 28 district judge seats but 10 of the 28 district judgeships are vacant, and active judges are currently handling 1,059 cases on average, which is nearly double the national average, according to the letter.

To make matters worse, Judge Phillips wrote, Congress hasn't created new judgeship openings since 1990, even though the population has grown 30% during that time and even though the judicial conference recommends an additional nine judgeships in the district.

The requests come days after the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit suspended Speedy Trial Act rules in the Southern District of California.

Former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani, who now runs his own private practice West Coast Trial Lawyers, told Law360 on Thursday that he suspects the decision to suspend the Speedy Trial Act rules in the Southern District will have a "domino effect" and encourage other districts to seek the same relief.

"There's no reason that every district in the Ninth Circuit isn't going to make this request," Rahmani said.

Rahmani said many judges are likely already continuing trials on an ad hoc basis, and for defendants who have been released on bond, this rule change might not be as significant. However, he said suspending the Speedy Trial Act rules can pose a problem for criminal defendants who haven't pled guilty, who can't be released on bond and who are sitting in jail waiting for their day in court.

"You're potentially infringing their right to a jury trial," he said.

He added that he believes defense advocates will challenge any decision to suspend the Speedy Trial Act rules in court, because it raises constitutional issues.

"This isn't the Dark Ages where you can hold people in prisons indefinitely," he said.

Rahmani said the consequences of trial delays can be higher in criminal cases than in civil cases, but he noted that recent state court closures due to the pandemic have raised statute-of-limitation issues on state civil claims. If a complaint is filed, the statute of limitations can be tolled, but once clerks' offices began closing, even filing a lawsuit became a challenge and it was unclear if complaints were being recorded, he said.

He added that fortunately the state judicial council recently announced rule changes to address the issue, he said.

Among the rule changes, on April 6, the California Judicial Council adopted an emergency rule that tolled the statute of limitations for all civil causes of action from April 6, 2020, until 90 days after Gov. Gavin Newsom declares that the state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic is lifted.

A representative for the U.S. Attorney's Office for California's Eastern District declined to comment Thursday. A representative for the Central District didn't immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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