Urban Courts Likely to Be Slow to Reopen During Coronavirus

May 4, 2020 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON – Guidelines announced last week for reopening U.S. federal courts are likely to leave the nation’s biggest cities as late-comers.

 The guidelines from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts depend heavily on conditions of the epidemic in each jurisdiction.

 While the spread of coronavirus is slowing in some states, it continues near peak levels in New York, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere where dense populations spread the virus quickly.

 Their social distancing requirements are expected to last until at least mid-summer.

The courts closed down most operations in late March. Some federal courts were set to reopen May 3 but instead extended their order to postpone hearings or to do them remotely at least until the end of this month.

 On May 1, the United States recorded its deadliest day from coronavirus with reports that 2,909 people died from the disease in 24 hours. The official death toll since the epidemic started was close to 70,000 at the beginning of this week.

Nevertheless, protests continue as demonstrators demand the reopening of local economies in California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee and Washington. Georgia and Texas already are allowing non-essential businesses to reopen.

 The guidelines call for a phased-in reopening of federal courts while court officials “work with local public health and public safety agencies to ensure when these criteria are satisfied and minimize employee risk as they progress through the phases.”

 One of the key issues that has stalled reopenings is the inability to empanel juries that represent a cross-section of their community. Most older residents and persons with weakened immune systems remain under advice not to leave their homes.

A committee of chief judges and court executives is administering the phase-in strategy.

They are looking at “issues such as testing potential jurors, social distancing considerations during jury assembly, voir dire, jury deliberations and many others …,” says a statement from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Under the first phase, all but the most essential court proceedings are postponed while employees telecommute. Essential proceedings most commonly refer to serious felonies.

Most other proceedings are being done remotely over Internet video or closed circuit television.

 The second phase allows employees and other persons who are not likely to catch or spread coronavirus to return. The number of court filings also would increase.

In the third phase, six-foot social distancing is retained but courtrooms, jury rooms and cafeterias reopen.

The fourth and final stage allows all court operations to return to normal.

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