Courthouses around the country are slowly reopening, with a panoply of health and social distancing guidelines. One of the most basic rules is that everyone in the courthouse must wear a face mask — a wholly sensible approach from a public health perspective. But mandatory face coverings also pose interesting new challenges for lawyers, judges, and juries, because of our reliance on facial expressions to assess emotion and credibility.
Courts are awakening to the problem, and trying to develop creative ways to permit certain participants to uncover their faces while protecting public health. One possible solution is to conduct voir dire by videoconference. Another is to cover witness and jury boxes with clear plexiglass, an admittedly second-best solution. As one Texas judge noted,
in Harris County, the courts are already installing plexiglass to protect the clerks, court reporters and bailiffs, who sit in high-traffic areas of courtrooms.
“I joke our courtrooms are going to look like a hockey rink,” he said. “We’re not putting plexiglass up around the jury box, because we haven’t figured out how we are going to conduct the jury trials. This is an issue that’s causing a lot of concern, because people sitting in the jury box are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Whatever the solution, the courtrooms will certainly feel different for a while.
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.
State trial courts in thirty New York counties are preparing to gradually reopen starting next week. Health precautions, including entry screening, masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing, will obviously be the norm.
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.
In anticipation of a reopening on June 1, the North Carolina courts have asked attorneys to mail in their filings well in advance of that deadline. The court system expects a massive crunch in paperwork once it resumes full operations. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, filings are down 54% for the year, and case dispositions are down 65%.
While most states are delaying trials or holding them via videoconference, Oregon’s courts are continuing in-person jury trials for many criminal defendants. Social distancing guidelines have been put into place, but there is much trepidation on the part of jurors and observers alike.
“It is very unusual,” said Paula Hannaford-Agor, the director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit organization that supports state court systems. “To the best of my knowledge, Oregon has been the only state that I’m aware of that has been doing trials.”
Across the country some of the orders limiting or halting court functions are set to expire, Hannaford-Agor said, while others states have closures or limited court functions that extend until June and even July. Though Multnomah County has reopened trials, neighboring Clark County, Washington, has decided to delay all trials until at least July 6.
“Jury service is the very definition of community spread,” Hannaford-Agor said. “There’s probably no better way to spread the infection than putting anywhere from 50 to 300 people in a room together sitting side-by-side for hours at a time.”
In Oregon, many trials have been rescheduled. But for some criminal defendants who are in custody that’s not possible. Oregon law has less flexibility than other states when it comes to speedy trials and no emergency provision to delay them. In custody defendants get the right to a [trial] within 60 days of their arrest.
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.
This story nicely illustrates how the New York court system absorbed the initial blow of coronavirus-related closings, and is now slowly reopening its civil docket via videoconference. The story is probably not an unusual one for state courts in this unusual time, but it seems worth logging some of them here for posterity.
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.