Beryl Howell Beryl Howell during her confirmation hearing in July 2010. Credit: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ

The U.S. district chief judge for the District of Columbia on Monday issued an order postponing all civil and criminal trials until May 11, and other proceedings until April 17 over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. District Chief Judge Beryl Howell wrote that the court “finds that the ends of justice served by these continuances to protect public health and safety and the fair trial rights of the defendant outweigh the best interests of the public and any defendant’s right to a speedy trial.”

Howell said the federal trial and bankruptcy courts in D.C. will be open with limited operations “to support essential functions in criminal, civil and bankruptcy matters in a matter to ensure public safety, public health and welfare.”

She said judges overseeing non-jury trial proceedings, including hearings, court appearances and grand jury sessions, could issue orders directing those proceedings be held through teleconference, videoconference or in-person on or before the April 17 cut-off date.

The judge pointed to the declaration of a global pandemic over coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations on limited public gatherings, and other local restrictions that reflect “the seriousness of the need to combat the community spread of the virus.”

Howell also cited the court’s “reduced ability to obtain an adequate spectrum of prospective jurors due to juror concerns regarding health and safety” in delaying the trials.

The D.C. federal courthouse had already restricted visitors to judges, court staff, members of the media and others who had official court business.

Howell’s order came down hours after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would postpone its upcoming arguments, set to be held March 23 to 25 and March 30 to April 1, over the public health measures implemented in response to COVID-19.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which is set to next hear arguments Friday, has instructed attorneys to not appear at the courthouse if they are exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus, and encouraged others to not attend arguments in-person and instead listen through the court’s online livestream.

Several judges scheduled to hold hearings in the Washington, D.C., federal courthouse this week have already ordered the typically in-person hearings to instead be held by phone.

Some attorneys have also requested that hearings this week be transferred to phone conferences. Lawyers from the Justice Department and the group Protect Democracy filed a motion earlier Monday, asking that a hearing in a public records case scheduled for Thursday be held by phone due to public health concerns about the coronavirus.

On Monday evening, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras rejected that motion, “given that a teleconference would implicate similar concerns by requiring court personnel (including a courtroom deputy, court reporter, etc.) to travel to the courthouse.” He vacated the hearing and instructed the parties to file briefs with the court instead.

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