The federal courts’ COVID-19 Judicial Task Force released a detailed report on Wednesday, containing recommendations for conducting jury trials and convening grand juries during the coronavirus pandemic. This Bloomberg Law piece provides a bit of additional context.
The report relies on guidance from the Center for Disease Control, and acknowledges that district courts may be ready to open, and open more fully, at different times during the next few weeks. It is a careful, detailed, and thoughtful report. It also illustrates the complex issues that virtually every organization — public or private — is facing right now regarding reopening: cleaning, social distancing, virus screening, transparency, scheduling, travel safety, and so on. Ask any school administrator, business owner, local bureaucrat, or public official, and you’ll hear about the same predictive difficulties.
The bottom line: courts are navigating this crisis just like the rest of us. Preparation is essential, but only time will provide real clarity.
As courthouses across the country slowly begin to reopen, individual federal district courts are wrestling with the best way — if at all — to convene grand juries for criminal cases. Bloomberg Law has a good article exploring some of the approaches that different courts are taking. Among them: holding grand jury proceedings in the courthouse with social distancing, holding proceedings entirely online, and simply waiting to convene grand juries until the situation improves.
Each approach obviously has strengths and weaknesses. There are the obvious health concerns about bringing people into a building. But there are also important countervailing considerations. Purely online proceedings may not allow for a fair cross-section of the community, since essential workers and those without adequate internet access (among others) may not be able to participate. At the same time, simply waiting for the pandemic to subside is inconsistent with the efficient administration of justice. As time passes, memories fade and witnesses become harder to find.
So there is no simple answer here. But a system in which courts have the discretion to tailor their approaches allows court leaders to collectively learn from their successes and setbacks.
Law360 has a good, general article on how the courts in Massachusetts are embracing virtual hearings in light of the coronavirus pandemic. This segment struck me as particularly interesting:
Like most jurisdictions, Massachusetts has embraced virtual hearings. It’s a development that [U.S. District] Judge [Dennis] Saylor, who took over as chief judge in January, is pleased to see.
“One of my goals was to try to drag the court into the 21st century in terms of video and telephone conferences, and a lot of my colleagues, both locally and nationwide, have been reluctant to do anything over the phone or by video,” he said. “One of the most expensive and problematic things about practicing law is getting in your car from Danvers or flying to Kansas City for a five-minute status conference.
“A silver lining in all of this is we have rapidly developed not only our video capabilities, but also people’s comfort with it, because no one has any choice.”
I have heard similar comments from state judges across the country, and it seems inevitable that certain types of minor hearings will be held via videoconference even after the pandemic ends. As Chief Judge Saylor notes, this is a very good thing.
The bigger question is how the courts will address the right of public access to court proceedings in the context of videoconferencing. There are legitimate concerns about whether the current technology is well-equipped to incorporate public access, but the larger issue will not–and should not–go away. The court systems that take the lead on integrating public access into videoconferencing will be particularly well positioned once the pandemic subsides.
Courts worldwide are using videoconferencing technology for a wide range of proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic, including (in some instances) trials. And disturbing new ground was broken this past week, when a judge in Singapore sentenced a defendant to death by remote video. The defendant had been found guilty of participating in a drug deal, and Singapore has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to illegal drugs.
This is probably not the place or time to reflect on Singapore’s draconian criminal laws and sentencing practices. But regardless of where one falls on the capital punishment debate, there is something especially dehumanizing about receiving a death sentence through a video screen. The judge (or jury) should have to look the defendant in the eye–face to face–when assessing such a punishment.
American courts have been experimenting with Zoom sentencing, and in fact a federal district court is scheduled to sentence a white collar defendant by videoconference on June 4. But that defendant is based in France and is hoping to avoid prison time altogether; it is night and day when compared to the Singapore sentence.
(h/t John McCarthy)
Yesterday, Texas held the first jury trial to be conducted exclusively through Zoom videoconferencing. The one-day summary jury trial was also livestreamed on YouTube.
This represents a major development, given that every other jurisdiction has simply postponed jury trials until courthouses reopen. And judges are increasingly opening to the idea of remote trials in some form. On the other hand, some judges remain steadfastly opposed to trials outside the physical courtroom, and with courthouses beginning to reopen in the coming weeks, it remains to be seen how common videoconference trials will become.
A snippet from the story about the study, which was conducted by Lex Machina:
Looking at U.S. federal district court complaints filed between March 1 and May 2 that referenced keyword terms tied to the coronavirus pandemic, Lex Machina found there was a 110% spike around mid-April, according to a report released on Monday.
The pandemic has also been referenced in filings that touch on 14 of the 16 practice areas that Lex Machina tracks, and most filings cite the coronavirus pandemic as a major factor behind the filing as opposed to just mentioning the current state of affairs, according to the data.
“We found that a total of 287 cases cited COVID-19 as a reason for filing and 108 merely mentioned a COVID-19 keyword as a preface or procedural recitation,” Lex Machina said in a blog post about its findings.
The federal judiciary has asked Congress for $36.6 million in supplemental funding to work through the coronavirus pandemic. The money would be used for cleaning courthouses, enhanced medical screening, information technology updates, and other IT infrastructure, among other things. The judiciary is also seeking new legislation to toll certain bankruptcy deadlines, add new temporary judgeships, and protect litigants and detainees from unnecessary coronavirus exposure.
The letter setting out the requests is here.
Hoping not to be bullied is not a worthy strategy for a co-equal branch of government.
A little over two years ago, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) issued a new policy which barred its employees and staff from engaging in partisan political activity, including posting yard signs or making ordinary campaign donations. I predicted at the time that the First Amendment implications would likely turn the new policy into a headache for the AO.
And so it did. In May of 2018, two AO employees filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that the policy violated their First Amendment right to engage in core political speech. Last week, the court agreed, granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs and promising to enter a permanent injunction preventing the AO from applying its policies to most of its employees. The court’s opinion is eye-opening, both for the district judge’s robust defense of First Amendment rights and for the AO’s cowardly view of the judiciary’s place in American society.
Continue reading “The federal courts try to self-censor. A federal judge says no.”
A federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia has ordered a patent infringement trial to proceed as scheduled on May 6. The entire trial will be conducted through the Zoom videoconferencing platform. It is expected to take about three weeks.
Plaintiff Centripetal Networks, Inc. alleges that Cisco Systems is infringing five of its patents for network technology. The case was filed in early 2018.
Cisco opposed the Zoom trial, arguing first that it would expose its proprietary technology to the public, and second that if the trial were to go forward via videoconference, it would be safer to hold it through Webex rather than Zoom. Cisco owns the Webex platform. The court rejected both arguments.
Earlier this month, a Texas state court held a one-day bench trial via Zoom. But this is a much more complex case, involving multiple claims, patents, and witnesses. If it proves successful, it may open the door to many more bench trials being conducted remotely. If the court and parties encounter major technical glitches, however, it may set back the movement for remote trials considerably.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has issued guidance regarding the opening of federal courthouses across the country. The guidelines envision a four-phase process, moving from the current scenario (most courthouses closed, hearings by phone or video, most employees working from home) through limited reopening with social distancing, and eventually a return to normal operations.
This is just a framework, not a schedule. The courts will not proceed along any opening path until data from the Center for Disease Control and other public health officials suggest that it is prudent to do so.