As reports of positive COVID-19 cases in the U.S. started to appear in early March, local, state, and federal governments were all faced with having to make changes to their criminal justice system operations in order to prevent further spread of the virus.
How Have Courts Responded to COVID-19?
According to the National Center for State Courts, the five most common efforts that state courts took to prevent further spread of COVID-19 were:
- Restricting or ending jury trials,
- Restricting entrances into courthouses,
- Generally suspending in-person proceedings,
- Granting extensions for court deadlines, including deadlines to pay fees/fines, and
- Encouraging or requiring teleconferences and videoconferences in lieu of hearings
These changes, as well as other measures, were also implemented by the federal court system (including the U.S. Supreme Court) in accordance with guidance from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Courtrooms Under the ‘New Normal’
U.S. courts must balance their workload, uphold Constitutional rights, and try to slow the spread of the virus through adjusted practices. In an article published by the United States Court, Chief Judge James K. Bredar of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland explained that his courtroom will be outfitted with plexiglass shields, there will be no public gallery, masks will be required, lawyers will be wearing headsets, and stand-alone jury chairs will be spread at least 6-feet apart. Other courts, such as the Los Angeles Superior Court, have opted to further delay some trials, with some criminal trials resuming in September and civil and non-jury trials resuming in January of 2021. Although the Los Angeles Superior Court is planning to roll out remote courtroom solutions, remote appearances cannot, for legal and ethical reasons, be mandated in all cases.
Conducting Jury Trials During COVID-19
On June 4, 2020, the COVID-19 Judiciary Task Force, made up of federal trial court judges, court executives, and representatives from both the federal defender community and the Department of Justice released a report that details how to conduct jury trials and convene grand juries during the pandemic. The report provides recommendations for courts as they move to restart jury trials and convene grand juries. Courts in California are implementing measures that align with the suggestions of the report, such as remote completion of juror questionnaires and staggering juror reporting times; providing screening, facemasks, hand sanitizer, and extra cleaning; ensuring social distancing in courtrooms, jury assembly areas, restrooms, and elevators; and shortening the time for verbal voir dire or questioning of jurors. Superior courts in some counties are reportedly asking prospective jurors to report for their jury duty at other large places, such as auditoriums and gymnasiums. In early August, a Texas court utilized Zoom to conduct a virtual jury trial in a misdemeanor traffic case. However, ABC News reported that defense attorneys, scholars, and legal experts have raised concerns regarding the use of Zoom and other video conferencing options for criminal cases, which include concerns that the video conferencing does not allow jurors to fully assess witness credibility and that it “falls short of the Constitutional guarantee that defendants can confront witnesses.” As the threat of COVID-19 continues, courts will continue to adapt to the ‘new normal.’
Instructors, click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.
The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.
- Writing: Explain the impact that the pandemic has had on the court system in the United States.
- Debate: Virtual criminal trials on conferencing platforms like Zoom uphold the accused’s Sixth Amendment rights. (Agree or Disagree)
- Poll: Is public health and safety from the COVID-19 virus more important than the accused’s right to a speedy trial? (Yes or No)
- Short Answer: Describe the measures courts have implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think these measures will be effective as courts begin to resume jury trials and court operations? Why or why not?
Cover Image: ©iStockphoto.com/Rawf8