More courthouses across the nation are restricting access to visitors as the number of people infected with the COVID-19 respiratory illness continues to spread.
Federal and state judiciaries in New York, California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., are among the many across the nation limiting access and altering the manner in which in-person hearings are conducted in order to mitigate the spread of the illness. Some have even gone as far as calling off oral arguments.
There were 4,226 confirmed cases across the nation as of Tuesday evening, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reported that 75 people have died from the virus.
The outbreak has battered the legal industry, as well as the stock market, which had its worst day in nearly three decades last week. Several law firms have shuttered offices or are “strongly encouraging” employees to work remotely.
Here’s an update on what state and federal courts across the nation are doing in response to the virus:
➤➤ U.S. Supreme Court: The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday announced it will not hold its upcoming oral argument session that was scheduled to begin March 23 for two weeks. The court said postponement of the argument session in light of public health concerns is not unprecedented. The justices did not hold arguments for October 1918 because of the Spanish flu epidemic. And the court shortened its argument calendars in August 1793 and August 1798 in response to yellow fever outbreaks. Advocates had been preparing at various moot court sessions in recent days, on the chance the court was prepared to keep argument sessions as scheduled.
➤➤ U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit: The court canceled all in-person appearances Tuesday. Instead, all matters will be handled by phone, decided on the briefings or postponed.
➤➤ U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit: Oral arguments scheduled to take place from March 17 to April 7 will be postponed. Courthouse access is also being restricted in line with other federal courts across the nation. All documents, including from pro se litigants, must be filed electronically, and all requirements for paper filings are being waived.
The Fourth Circuit also took action last week, sending out calendar notices to litigants slated to appear for oral arguments from March 17 to 20. The notices ask lawyers to notify the court if they have a fever, cough, shortness of breach or have been exposed to anyone in the past 14 days who may have COVID-19. “This will enable the Court to reschedule an argument that might otherwise risk spreading the Coronavirus,” the notice said.
➤➤ U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: The nation’s largest appellate court is rolling out video conferencing for judges and lawyers in some cases, rescheduling two high-profile cases in Las Vegas and relocating upcoming panel arguments initially scheduled for the court’s Seattle courthouse to Pasadena, California. Katherine M. Rodriguez, the court’s communications administrator for the Office of the Circuit Executive, said the court will allow telephone and video conferencing more broadly during the health emergency.
The Ninth Circuit also announced Thursday that it is postponing two hearings at the Lloyd D. George U.S. Courthouse in Las Vegas in cases against defendants Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher, and Todd Engel, an Idaho man, who engaged in a standoff against officers over public land. The cases were originally scheduled to be heard March 23.
➤➤ U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit: On Wednesday, Chief Judge Ed Carnes canceled the circuit’s judicial conference that was scheduled for May in Atlanta. Carnes said he decided to cancel the conference, given warnings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp that canceling the conference was “necessary and prudent in the interest of all those who would have attended.”
➤➤ California: The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has closed all courthouses to the public and suspended civil and criminal trials until May 1. The court issued two general orders Monday signed by Chief Judge Phyllis Hamilton that also said the court will decide civil matters on the papers and conduct any necessary hearings via telephone or video conference.
State courts across California are implementing a variety of measures to curtail public activity in many instances, and they will shut down completely in others. The California Supreme Court on Monday suspended in-person oral arguments until ”deemed prudent to resume normal measures.” Counsel will appear by video or telephone. Alameda and Contra Costa County Superior Courts have largely closed to the public.
➤➤ Connecticut: Most Connecticut courts are staying open, amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19 globally. But they have delayed jury selections and trials and are urging people to conduct court-related business via phone. The Connecticut Superior Court, Connecticut Appellate Court and the state’s three federal courts have all announced coronavirus-related contingency plans. But as of Tuesday afternoon, the Connecticut Supreme Court was still planning to hear oral arguments for its seventh session, which runs from March 24 through April 2. Click here for the latest updates.
Meanwhile, Connecticut federal courts will deny entry to people who’ve recently traveled to any country or location under coronavirus-related quarantine. The chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut issued an order barring entry of individuals who visited China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Iran, New York’s New Rochelle community and any other location under coronavirus-related quarantine in the past 14 days. Judge Stefan Underhill’s order takes effect immediately, and covers Connecticut’s federal courthouses in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven.
Meanwhile, defense attorneys throughout Connecticut were mulling the balance between public safety and defendants’ right to fair and speedy trials in criminal cases. Some said court delays were needed to control the spread of coronavirus, but others questioned whether that was fair to defendants facing criminal charges.
“The last thing you want is a distracted jury,” said William Bloss, of Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder in Bridgeport. “And right now, jurors will be distracted.”
➤➤ Delaware: The Delaware Superior Court has suspended all criminal and civil jury trials through April 15 and the Chancery Court has ordered that, for the next 30 days, all hearings and trials either be conducted electronically or be continued.
➤➤ Florida: Miami-Dade Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto on Tuesday moved to close court facilities until March 27, ordering all staff who are able to work from home to do so during this period. The closure does not apply to emergency or “mission critical” matters, which include first appearances in criminal cases, Baker Act and substance abuse hearings, juvenile shelter and detention hearings, and emergency petitions for temporary injunctions. Click here for more information.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Chief Judge Michael Moore of the Southern District of Florida has announced restrictions on courthouse access due to the coronavirus. The courts will deny entry to people who have traveled to countries hardest hit by the outbreak or who have been in contact with people infected within the past 14 days.
On Thursday, Miami-Dade courts issued a health advisory to anyone who appeared in two criminal divisions Tuesday and Wednesday after a court employee became ill with flu-like symptoms. As a precautionary measure, people who appeared in the courtrooms of Circuit Judges Miguel de la O and Gina Beovides were advised to monitor themselves for two weeks for any symptoms of the virus.
➤➤ Georgia: State Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton took the unprecedented step Thursday of asking people not to come to court in the latest measure to control the spread of the coronavirus. Melton said that, while court proceedings remain open to the public, he is requesting that only those who are directly involved in oral arguments, such as attorneys arguing a particular case, attend court sessions and that media and others monitor the arguments by watching the livestream on their computers.
In addition he’s suspended swearing-in ceremonies of attorneys at the courthouse. Those who must be sworn in to participate in matters before the court should check the website for alternative ways to be certified, he said.
Citing “the severity of risk” posed by the spread of the novel coronavirus, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on Monday also suspended all jury trials and accompanying trial deadlines for 30 days.
Chief Judge Thomas Thrash also ordered that no jurors will be summoned for civil or criminal jury trials in any division in the district—including Rome, Gainesville and Newnan—for 30 days. All grand jury proceedings are also suspended.
The district’s federal courthouses will remain open, and staff in the district clerk’s office will be available by telephone, mail will continue to be received, and intake desks will remain open to accept court filings, “although social distancing measures will be enforced,” Thrash said.
Nearly half of the Georgia’s state courts have also closed their doors, with some shuttered for at least the next two weeks.
➤➤ New Jersey: No new jury trials will begin in New Jersey state courts as the state grapples with the virus. Pending jury trials will go ahead, as will grand jury proceedings, for now.
The move comes as the judiciary also implements other changes, such as staggering court calls and going to virtual or telephonic proceedings.
New visitor restrictions also went into effect at New Jersey’s three federal courthouses as part of an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus. In addition, people scheduled for jury duty who seek to be excused for a medical reason must present a note from a doctor.
➤➤ New York: The New York Court of Appeals convened in Albany on Tuesday and heard three in-person arguments, even as a myriad of other high-profile institutions have postponed or canceled their operations due to the growing coronavirus outbreak. Court spokesman Gary Spencer said all seven judges were in attendance and the courtroom seating arrangement was reconfigured to create more space between the judges as a “social distancing” measure. But the session might be the last for a while, as Wednesday’s slate of three arguments was adjourned, Spencer said.
Meanwhile, high-profile New York prosecutors, including Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, signed on to a letter recommending a “cite and release” policy for low-level arrestees who pose “no physical threat” to the community.
Finally, the New York Legislature was in recess Monday and Tuesday, but may return to session Wednesday, with the state’s budget—constitutionally due April 1—topping lawmaker’s to-do list, along with criminal justice reform issues, such as bail reform and cannabis legalization, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo still wants to address.
➤➤ Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice David Wecht has self-quarantined after a family member tested presumptively positive for COVID-19, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts announced Tuesday. The revelation about Wecht came just one day after the Supreme Court declared a statewide judicial emergency, with courts in Philadelphia and Montgomery County choosing to suspend jury trials for several weeks.
➤➤ Texas: The Texas Supreme Court on Monday ordered four pending oral arguments—the last of this term—to be postponed. The court will determine later when it’s going to reschedule the arguments. Click here to read the latest updates.
Dallas County District Courts have suspended jury trials in civil, family and justice of the peace courts. No jurors should report to the George Allen Civil Courts Building until at least April 13. Criminal jury trials will proceed as scheduled.
Harris County District Courts have suspended jury trials for the rest of March for civil, family, juvenile and criminal cases. Only “essential court matters” will proceed as normal. A list of essential matters is included in the courts’ notice.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit are moving forward with appearances and oral arguments. They have asked anyone with flu-like symptoms to contact the court and will post any changes to their policies on the court websites.
➤➤ Virginia: The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, colloquially known as the Rocket Docket, has suspended non-case-related outside events, tours and other gatherings in its courthouses. All naturalization ceremonies for March were also postponed; it’s unclear whether they will resume in April.
➤➤ Washington, D.C. The U.S. district chief judge of 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.”
The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation also announced it will hold its March 26 hearing, originally scheduled to be in Nashville, Tennessee, from its Washington, D.C., office telephonically. Noting that a hearing “entails numerous attorneys and jurists coming together from across the country,” the panel said it would notify attorneys by March 19 whether their cases might still involve oral argument, which would take place telephonically. The panel also may order supplemental briefing, due March 23.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit also sent out notices Thursday in several cases saying arguments will be conducted by telephone in lieu of in-person appearances. In at least one case, those arguments are currently scheduled for early April.
➤➤ Washington state: Federal courts in western Washington state have suspended all civil and criminal matters requiring an in-court appearance due to an outbreak there. The order, in effect at least until March 31, does not impact judges’ considerations of civil or criminal matters that can be resolved on court filings without oral argument.
Nate Robson, C. Ryan Barber, Jacqueline Thomsen and Mike Scarcella contributed reporting from Washington, D.C. Cathy Wilson and Michael Mora reported from Florida. R. Robin McDonald and Katheryn Tucker contributed from Georgia. Ryan Tarinelli and Jane Wester contributed reporting from New York. Max Mitchell reported from Pennsylvania. Angela Morrison reported from Texas. Ross Todd, Alaina Lancaster, Amanda Bronstad and Cheryl Miller contributed from California. Robert Storace reported from Connecticut. Charles Toutant contributed from New Jersey.