COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going

A glance at the recent developments, and what to look for in the future.

It has been about seven weeks since the coronavirus pandemic began to affect state and federal courts in the United States. At this point, it seems worthwhile to set out the ways in which courts have responded, both by adjusting their own operations and by reaching out to others in the external environment. We can also begin to consider which of the current changes might stick after the pandemic subsides.

Hearings and transparency. Many state court systems have proven remarkably agile at moving in-court proceedings to telephone and videoconference platforms. Both trial and appellate courts are now holding regular hearings via Zoom (although some lawyers apparently need a reminder about appropriate dress). At least one state court has even conducted a full bench trial by Zoom. The federal court system has also made impressive strides, albeit with a bit more reluctance. In late March, the Judicial Conference of the United States authorized the Chief Judge of each federal district court to permit selected criminal hearings within the district to proceed by videoconference. Federal appellate courts have also begun conducting criminal hearings by videoconference. And the United States Supreme Court announced that after a coronavirus-induced hiatus, it would hear a handful of regularly scheduled oral arguments by telephone beginning in May. Continue reading “COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going”

Judges face a new challenge: half-dressed lawyers on Zoom

The coronavirus crisis and consequent social distancing has spurred many courts to move their hearings to videoconference. In light of the circumstances, some courts have relaxed certain formalities for online hearings, including the donning of judicial robes. This is a sensible practice, especially since judges already take on a slightly more relaxed feel when meeting with counsel in chambers, or otherwise outside the courtroom.

But some judges in Florida are finding that stay-at-home casualness is affecting lawyers’ professionalism a bit more starkly:

Broward circuit judge Dennis Bailey described some of what they’re seeing from the bench.

“It is remarkable how many ATTORNEYS appear inappropriately on camera,” Bailey wrote in a letter posted to the Weston Bar Associated website. “We’ve seen many lawyers in casual shirts and blouses, with no concern for ill-grooming, in bedrooms with the master bed in the background, etc. One male lawyer appeared shirtless and one female attorney appeared still in bed, still under the covers.

“And putting on a beach cover-up won’t cover up you’re poolside in a bathing suit. So, please, if you don’t mind, let’s treat court hearings as court hearings, whether Zooming or not.”

It would never occur to me in a million years to stop dressing professionally for a court hearing. It’s one thing to abandon complete formality (like a robe or a suit) in unusual circumstances like these. But it’s something altogether different to choose not to wear a shirt. Good grief.

Federal court delays trial in Alabama judicial election case

A federal district court has delayed the trial in a challenge to Alabama’s method to selecting state appellate judges. The trial, originally scheduled to begin in August, was removed from the trial list in light of complications posed by social distancing and the coronavirus.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports:

The lawsuit alleges that the state’s method of electing appellate judges dilutes the voting strength of black voters, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The seven Supreme Court justices are elected statewide to eight-year terms, while the 12 Appeals Court judges are elected from seven districts, five of which elect two members.

Attorneys for the state asked Moody in August to dismiss the case, arguing that “justice should not be administered on the basis of race, and Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] does not require this court to fundamentally reshape the Arkansas judiciary.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs responded that the Act was enacted for “the broad remedial purpose of ridding the country of racial discrimination in voting,” including state judicial elections.

The delay was necessitated because social distancing practices had severely hampered the parties’ ability to conduct discovery. The judge did not foreclose certain discovery practices from continuing, however, and has ordered the parties to meet electronically and work out a time frame for handing over certain election data.

A Voting Rights Act challenge to state judicial voting districts was also raised in Louisiana back in 2014, resulting a trial verdict for the plaintiffs.

How coronavirus is affecting the courts — April 3 update

The novel coronavirus is affecting societies worldwide, and judicial systems are no exception. Here is a selection of the latest news and profile stories on how courts are dealing with the epidemic:

What is the state of Israel’s courts in the time of coronavirus? (Jerusalem Post)

Uncertainty looms over Supreme Court as lower courts transition to teleconferencing (Washington Free Beacon)

Federal Judge’s Sentencing acknowledges COVID-19 (Forbes) (a story about the sentencing of certain defendants in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal)

COVID-19 and Online Dispute Resolution: It’s a Whole New World Out There (op-ed for the Connecticut Law Tribune)

7th Circuit suspends most paper copies to slow spread of COVID-19 (Chicago Daily Law Bulletin)

Previous roundup coverage here. And check the home page for additional discussion of coronavirus and the courts.

 

Judicial Conference authorizes federal courts to hold certain criminal proceedings electronically

Last week, Congress passed the CARES Act, which most notably was designed to give a push to the American economy in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Nestled within that Act was a provision that permitted the Judicial Conference of the United States to determine that “emergency conditions due to the national emergency declared by the President with respect to COVID-19 will materially affect the functioning of the federal courts generally.” Such a finding would then permit chief judges of individual federal district courts to temporarily authorize videoconferences or teleconferences in certain criminal proceedings, solely in response to the coronavirus crisis.

The Judicial Conference made that authorization on Sunday, leaving it now to individual districts to determine whether to implement videoconferencing. It is worth noting that the legislation (which was passed with significant input from the Judicial Conference) is relatively narrow, and applies only to the current COVID-19 emergency. Moreover, the general authorization applies only to certain types of criminal proceedings: in particular, no felony plea or sentencing could be done by video- or teleconference unless the district court makes additional findings that such proceedings (1) cannot be done in person “without seriously jeopardizing public health and safety”, and (2) that “there are specific reasons that the plea or sentencing in that case cannot be further delayed without serious harm to the interests of justice.”

This is an entirely practical step, representing collaboration between Congress and the courts to protect the efficient operation of the criminal justice system. Whether it will open the door for further use of videoconferencing in non-emergency situations, however, is very much unsettled. And the current legislation has drawn criticism in some circles that it reduces much-needed transparency in criminal justice.

Legal industry responds to coronavirus crisis with “calls for kindness”

I really like this story from Law360, which profiles a number of lawyers and judges across the country who are emphasizing patience and kindness in a profession too often built on time pressure and adversarialism. Some snippets:

On Thursday, [Chief Justice Ralph Gants] sent a letter to the Massachusetts and Boston bar associations, urging attorneys to work with the courts and each other “to create their own version of [mobile triage] units” to figure out how to protect the most vulnerable, preserve individual rights, resolve disputes and carry on.

“If we stand strong, resilient, and adaptive, and work together as judiciary and bar to find ‘duct tape’ solutions to immediate problems that otherwise might take years to solve, we will leave this crisis with a better, more resilient system of justice,” he said.

The judge added, “And perhaps, if we do our jobs well, a future generation will say of us, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

***

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg of the Northern District of Georgia issued an order to every case on her docket with some words of advice to attorneys battling it out in her jurisdiction: “Be kind.”

“Be kind to one another in this most stressful of times,” Judge Totenberg wrote. “Remember to maintain your perspective about legal disputes, given the larger life challenges now besetting our communities and world.

“Good luck to one and all.”

A subscription to Law360 may be required to read the whole article, but access it if you can. It’s a nice reminder that when the moment calls for it, we can surely become our better selves.

 

Courts embracing video in wake of coronavirus pandemic

With coronavirus spreading worldwide, courts are increasingly closing their physical spaces and relying on video technology to keep the wheels of justice moving. The UK Supreme Court has equipped itself with high-definition cameras for livestreaming. In the US, both state and federal courts are effectively closing their courthouses and moving to videoconferencing for at least certain types of hearings.

Time will tell whether this shift portends a larger move to court-centered online dispute resolution, or whether courts will revert to their traditional courtroom operations once the health crisis is over. My sense is that it will be some of both. Courts are highly unlikely to jettison the social grandeur of the courthouse entirely, and of course no video can replace the physical intimacy of a jury trial or an evidentiary hearing. At the same time, courts would be wise to use this moment as an opportunity to craft a form of public online dispute resolution for appropriate types of cases — a form of resolution that is as (or more) effective, cheaper, and more trustworthy than private ODR.

There will be much more to say in this story as it develops. Stay healthy and sane, everyone.