FILE PHOTO: A gavel rests on the judge’s bench in the courtroom of the 39th Air Base Wing legal office at Nov. 14, 2019, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.

THE NEUTRAL ZONE

Courts across the country are attempting to reopen with a patchwork of methods to ensure the safety of staff and jurors without sacrificing due process for all sides of a trial. 

Local and state courts are bracing for an onslaught of civil legal cases regarding evictions and consumer debt following the economic fallout brought on by the pandemic. Federal courts have been overwhelmed with criminal cases, some of which were initially put off with nationwide shutdowns. The introduction of video sentencing to work through the backlog has brought with it concern from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of an “erosion of the right to trial.” 

However, if cases resume in-person, some judges say they fear a potential “nightmare scenario” if a single juror tested positive for the coronavirus, which would force the court to dismiss the other jurors and declare a mistrial. Other courts are wrangling with whether to allow witnesses to wear masks, which could deter from jurors’ ability to perceive their facial expressions as they testify, and how to ensure a jury is reflective of the population if some people fear they will contract the virus if they leave their home. Other courts are preparing for social distancing measures with plexiglass on witness stands and the judge’s bench, asking jurors to sit throughout the courtroom instead of only in the juror box, and proposing larger venues for the jury selection process.

MEDIA PERSPECTIVE

Court operations resuming, but ‘normal’ still months off – The State Journal – 6/11/2020
Presently, judges are only acting on criminal matters for those who are in custody and emergency matters, Franklin Commonwealth’s Attorney Larry Cleveland said. There have been criminal dockets in circuit court every week, but most of the action has been taken through video conferencing programs.

Some San Bernardino courtrooms closed after coronavirus exposure – San Bernardino Sun – 6/8/2020
The exposure was from a COVID-19 positive person who made court appearances, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael Sachs said. The affected courtrooms at the Justice Center and the Delinquency Court were expected to resume service Tuesday.

Court is in session — Brooklyn and NYC courts reopen for first time since March – Brooklyn Eagle – 6/10/2020
The “new normal” means that all non-employee court visitors will be required to undergo COVID-19 screening before entering the courthouse. Any staff who interact with visitors, as well as all visitors, will be required to wear masks, as well.

Texas court holds first US jury trial via videoconferencing – Associated Press – 5/21/2020
The coronavirus pandemic has crippled courts nationwide, putting many cases on indefinite hold and leaving judges trying to manage some hearings via videoconferencing. The delays have kept some defendants in jail longer, exposing them to possible outbreaks. And the virus even upended how the Supreme Court operates, with the justices hearing oral arguments by phone for the first time in the court’s history.

INFLUENCER PERSPECTIVE

KSAT 12 on Twitter, 6/11/2020: The mid-March closure of the Bexar County courts complex amid the coronavirus pandemic had a devastating effect on the local justice system, according to District Court Judge Peter Sakai. 

NLADA on Twitter, 6/11/2020:  “It’s not impossible to create a safe working place in any courthouse… but it is very difficult,” says Judge Anthony Cannataro. As cramped New York City courts reopen, how will safety and productivity be balanced? #SafeguardJustice @emma_a_whitford 

The Legal Aid Society on Twitter, 6/11/2020:  “It’s like taking sand to the beach. To open to new [housing] cases will bog down things even more,” – Nakeeb Saddique, Attorney in our Brooklyn Housing Office

Lily Jamali on Twitter, 6/11/2020:  ICYMI: California’s courts aren’t going to look the same as they start to reopen. @SherazSadiq1 spoke with a public defender who thinks trial-by-Zoom is unfair to defendants. 

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