COVID complicates access to New York’s mental health courts

The New York Daily News has a very interesting feature on the Manhattan’s specialized mental health court, and the special challenges facing those who would like to use it during this pandemic-stricken era.

Only a handful of cases ever make it to Manhattan Mental Health Court, according to data provided by the district attorney — and that was before COVID-19 ground the city to a halt. On Friday, after tentatively opening some courtrooms for trials and hearings over the summer, the Office of Court Administration once again shut down most in-person proceedings, citing a recent surge in the virus.

Even pre-COVID, the mental health court moved at a plodding pace. In 2018, the office received 74 requests for referral. Of those, prosecutors consented to refer 43 cases — about 58% — and declined to refer the rest. In 2019, the office got 136 requests. They consented to 46 cases — about 34% — and declined to refer the remaining 90.

The office referred three cases this year before the court shutdown in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Twelve cases were not referred to mental health court, though two of those were referred to another diversion court. Thirty-five are pending.

The whole story is worth the read, especially for those interested in how specialized state courts can make a difference in people’s lives — if they are accessible.

Western District of Pennsylvania to halt jury trials for three months

As COVID-19 cases begin to rise in the Pittsburgh area, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania has announced a halt to nearly all jury trials until at least February 8, 2021. Law.com explains:

The unavailability of health care workers, high-risk citizens, those who rely on now-limited public transit, “and those who will face substantial childcare challenges arising from the renewed closure of schools … creates a serious impact” on jury selection, the court said.

The situation would demand “ever-larger jury venire pools for potential service and potentially diminish … the representative nature of the pool of summoned jurors,” the court said.

For criminal defense lawyers, they are experiencing huge challenges in being able to communicate with their clients behind bars, a necessity for a fair defense, the order said.

Unfortunately, this is probably just the first of many orders that will similarly affect state and federal courts this winter.

In-person jury trials to resume in Brooklyn

For the first time in seven months, Brooklyn courts will begin to hold jury trials inside courthouses. A number of safety measures have been implemented, including temperature checks, plexiglass screens, and upgraded air filtration systems.

During the last several months, a number of courts worldwide held jury trials outdoors or in large, socially distanced venues. As winter approaches (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least), trials will have no choice but to move indoors. Hopefully they prove to be safe and successful.

Webinar on funding for court access during pandemic

The Pew Charitable Trusts hosted a webinar last month with an eye toward helping courts and civil justice stakeholders secure funding to assist with court access during the COVID-19 pandemic. The details, including the link to the webinar recording, can be found here.

Scotland will hold jury trials in movie theaters

Courts across the world are continuing to think creatively in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Some Scottish courts will now be holding socially distanced jury trials in movie theaters, where the 15-person juries can spread out, watch the presentation of testimony and evidence on the big screen, and then deliberate in person.

This follows similar efforts in the UK and US to use large open spaces for trials, including fairgrounds and convention centers. While we all look forward to the day when trials are back in a proper courtroom, the efforts to keep the wheels of justice turning are surely praiseworthy.

COVID’s silent victim in the courts: traditional due process

Gothamist has a really nice piece by Beth Fertig about socially distanced trials in a Brooklyn Housing Court. Even with Herculean efforts on the part of judges and court staff, these trials are a mess. Lawyers and clients cannot sit next to each other. Entire courthouses have been deemed too small to hold any trials. Members of the public cannot view the trial because of social distancing restrictions. It just feels…weird.

The story underscores how deeply procedural fairness is built into a traditional trial. Under ordinary circumstances, trials would be open to the public and the media. Parties would sit with their lawyers and confer with them throughout the process. In jury trials, simply being in the courtroom would place pressure on jurors to pay close attention to the arguments and evidence. Lawyers would be able to confront witnesses without any fear that they are being coached by someone off-camera. There would be a strong sense of both party involvement and public transparency.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced courts to choose strategies that weaken one or both of these values. In-person, socially distanced trials allow some form of party involvement, including confronting witnesses. But they forfeit much of the transparency that benefits both the public and the parties. By contrast, videoconferenced trials are more amenable to public view, but raise problems for parties who lack the proper technology, or whose homes are more chaotic or challenging than the august, stoic nature of the courtroom.

All this is to say that the sooner we can get back to regular courtroom proceedings, the better. And in the meantime, we should be more cognizant of the due process considerations that are already so carefully built into our traditional trial structure.

Pandemic-induced court changes will remain long-term

Several courts are beginning to announce that technological changes made at the start of the coronavirus pandemic will remain for the foreseeable future. Top judicial leaders in many states have concluded that “Zoom courts are here to stay,” and are working to update their infrastructure. In addition, Ohio will continue holding webinars in lieu of court-mandated live parenting classes, and will improve the tech connection between courthouses and county jails. Meanwhile, Maine has issued official guidance for those who want to watch remote hearings, and is seeking federal funds to further update its technological capabilities.

I generally detest the philosophy of “never let a crisis go to waste,” which too often exploits catastrophes to satisfy a partisan wish list. But this is something far more organic, and the American courts will come out of this pandemic stronger and more flexible for having survived this technological trial by fire.

The peculiar environment of reopened courtrooms

As the summer passes its midpoint, debates are raging in every corner of the country about how to approach the coming school year. Some feel that reopening schools will place teachers and students at unacceptable risk; others note that the mental and emotional damage to children from continued social isolation requires every effort to conduct classes in person. On two points, however, everyone seems to be in agreement. First, no option is particularly good. And second, even if schools do reopen, their layout, schedule, and operation will be markedly different than before.

Courts are facing the identical crisis, as their social and constitutional responsibilities to administer justice without delay brush up against their responsibilities to protect public health. And those courts that have reopened look and feel very different than they did six months ago.

This article points out some of the changes that have been implemented in reopened state courthouses. They feel at once dramatic and mundane: requiring attorneys and clients to communicate only by passing notes through a plexiglass window, holding trials in convention centers (or even fairgrounds!), and asking attorneys and judges to hold sidebars by walkie-talkie (with white noise pumped into the courtroom to avoid others overhearing). And notwithstanding these changes, the general fear of COVID-19 exposure remains pervasive.

This is all deeply unsettling, yet there may be a silver lining. Although unwelcome, the pandemic is forcing an explosion of creativity in our institutions. Some of today’s courthouse solutions may be jettisoned as soon as it is safe to do so, but I also suspect that some will prove worthy of keeping around.

In Memoriam: Stephen Susman

This morning brought the sad news that renowned trial lawyer Stephen Susman has passed away from the novel coronavirus. He was 79.

Steve was widely known for his remarkable trial skills, and as a founder of the Houston litigation firm Susman Godfrey. But his professional energy and interests extended far beyond the courtroom. He was deeply active in efforts to improve the civil justice system and to preserve the civil jury trial. A few years ago, he founded the Civil Jury Project at NYU Law School for that express purpose, bringing together lawyers, judges, jurors, and scholars to study and advocate for the importance of civil juries.

I first met Steve about ten years ago, at the Duke Conference of the federal Advisory Committee on Civil Rules. As judges and lawyers struggled to determine the best way to rein in discovery costs, Steve pointed out how much can be done when opposing counsel simply act like adults and professionals. As proof, he submitted a two-page checklist of discovery agreements that he claimed to use in every case. It was a straightforward and sensible list, agreed to by counsel in advance, covering issues like the order of depositions and the labeling of exhibits — the type of things that would naturally keep discovery within reasonable limits and avoid pointless cost to the client. My favorite item remains the very first on the list:

As to any discovery dispute, the lead lawyers will try to resolve [it] by phone and no one will write letters to the other, including letters attached as pdf’s to emails and phone calls.

The entire checklist was so simple, and yet so brilliant, that I immediately sought permission to share it with my law students. (Steve graciously granted that permission in short order.) I still assign the checklist to my law students as a paradigm example of how a lawyer can simultaneously be a zealous advocate of his client and a responsible officer of the court.

About three years ago, Steve asked me to join the Civil Jury Project as an academic advisor, an invitation for which I was both honored and grateful. It was a pleasure to see him in action, with his relentless energy and good cheer, as he brought together jurors and lawyers at “jury improvement luncheons” across the country, and held programs for scholars to share their insights into the jury system.

Our thoughts are with Steve’s family today. His passing is a profound loss for the entire legal community.

 

 

Coming soon to your local fairground: jury trials?

Court administrators have had to act nimbly during the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic, in order to balance public safety with the requirements of due process. Now, some county courts in Oregon are considering yet another creative solution: holding jury trials at local fairgrounds in order to meet the requirements of social distancing.

The fairgrounds are already owned by the respective counties where trials might be held. They are easy to get to, have ample parking, and offer wide-open and largely unused buildings, making them an attractive option for courts. Still, there are many logistics that have yet to be worked out:

So far in Deschutes County, court officials have developed lists of what will be needed at the fairgrounds. On the to-do list is to look at the costs of renting tents and other furnishings like chairs, tables, maybe a riser to put a bench up on.

Heating, air conditioning and restrooms will be needed to keep people comfortable, because jurors need to be focused only on listening to the evidence, Ashby said. Secure and private rooms are needed for lawyers to meet with clients and jurors and judges to deliberate. Boxes and boxes of computer and recording equipment must be relocated and tied in with the county IT system and the fairgrounds PA system. Security is another primary concern.

“Our number one priority is making the courthouse as safe as humanly possible,” Ashby said. “Competing with that are statutory timelines, which require us to try cases, the most pressing of which are in-custody criminal defendants.”

Plans like this are born of necessity, but it will be fascinating to see what courts learn from the experience, and how some of these options might influence court administration after the pandemic subsides.