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Law360 (January 13, 2021, 2:29 PM EST) -- Massachusetts has moved judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys into the second phase of the state's COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan after lobbying by the state bar association and public defenders, making shots available to those people starting next month.
The updated state guidance includes "court system workers" in the category of people the state plans to vaccinate in February and March. The group will include judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and clerks in addition to restaurant staff, K-12 education workers, meatpackers, convenience store workers and sanitation workers, among others.
The change comes following a Jan. 6 letter signed by the president of the Massachusetts Bar Association and the chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state's public defenders. The letter cited the "staggering" backlog of cases as a result of the pandemic as well as the need for defense attorneys and prosecutors to often appear in court and within close proximity to their clients.
"It's so important to have these defense attorneys and prosecutors vaccinated because of the constitutional concerns that have a bearing on criminal law cases," Martin Healy, the bar association's chief counsel, told Law360 in an interview Wednesday.
"They will be the first cases and trials conducted in the court," Healy said. "Both of those constituencies come into contact a lot with witnesses; on the defense side, they come in contact with the inmate population. It's going to be a great help for the peace of mind for people that work in these fields that they are going to have the vaccine and be protected as much as they can from contracting COVID."
Healy said the state responded to last week's letter on Friday and he believes that the guidance was updated over the weekend. Representatives for Gov. Charlie Baker did not immediately return requests for comment Wednesday.
"As we stare down the prospect of a massive backlog of cases, we need defense attorneys across the state to be able to litigate in person without fear of contracting this deadly virus," Anthony Benedetti, CPCS' chief counsel, said in a statement Wednesday, voicing gratitude to Baker and the state's Executive Office of Health and Human Services for quickly responding to the request.
Citing a news report, the letter said state courts' pending load of 103,469 cases is nearly double what it was last year. Criminal cases account for nearly half of that backlog, the letter said.
"There have not been any criminal jury trials since March 2020, and the prospect of a return to widespread jury trials before March 2021 is remote," the letter, signed by Benedetti and bar association President Denise Murphy, says. "CPCS attorneys and supporting professionals must be fully prepared to enter courthouses and jails and prisons as soon as possible to facilitate the operation of the judicial system. They should be considered essential frontline workers who are key to societal functioning."
Massachusetts began its vaccination campaign in late December with frontline health care workers and first responders as well as people living in long-term care facilities and those living in congregate settings, such as group homes and prisons.
The second phase of the distribution plan is scheduled to take place in February and March. The state's website said that individuals with multiple health conditions that put them at increased risk will be the top priority for phase two. They will be followed by the "other workers" category, which includes those in the legal profession.
Judges, attorneys and clerks are listed last among those workers, suggesting that they will be further back in order of priority. They will still receive vaccines ahead of people over age 65 and those with one underlying condition, per the state guidelines. Massachusetts' general population is scheduled to begin receiving doses of the vaccine in April.
--Editing by Aaron Pelc.
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