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.
The difficult and tragic hurricane season, which closed Texas’s federal and state courthouses last month, has now done the same to the courthouses in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. (A courthouse in Florida remains closed in the wake of Hurricane Irma as well.) In light of the terrible destruction on those islands, the closing of a courthouse by itself is bottom-page news. But in times of crisis, courthouses are needed — both practically and symbolically — to assure citizens that the rule of law remains in place. Here’s hoping that the residents of all affected areas find strength, rebuild, and restore their communities.
The United States District Court for the District of Vermont will close its Brattleboro courthouse at the end of this month, with the retirement of Senior Judge Garvan Murtha. Judge Murtha was the only federal judge sitting in Brattleboro.
This is another example of the courts trying to balance cost and efficiency with access to justice. It is probably not a catastrophe for a single courthouse to close and district business to consolidate, especially in a geographically small state like Vermont. But it does say something to smaller communities about their relevance in the eyes of the justice system when an existing courthouse closes.
The devastation in the Houston area from Hurricane Harvey has extended to the state and local court systems, which have effectively been shut down. State courthouses in Harris County, Texas are closed all week, and several other counties are scrambling to shift proceedings to available venues. The federal courts in the Southern District of Texas also suspended operations for several days, a major development given that the district receives more than 14,000 filings a year. The Eastern District of Texas and Western District of Louisiana also closed courthouses in light of the hurricane.
In the wake of real tragedy along Harvey’s path, the inconvenience of a closed courthouse is admittedly relatively minor. But as those in the Gulf Coast begin the long process of reconstructing their communities, an operational and fully functioning court system will be a welcome development.
Iowa’s juvenile and district courts will not schedule any appearances this coming Friday, and all clerk of court and administrative offices will be closed. Court staff will instead take a mandatory, unpaid furlough day. The move stemmed from budget cuts by the state legislature.