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.
The Rio de Janiero State Court in Brazil will begin prosecuting corruption cases through special “faceless” courts designed to hide the identity of the presiding judges. It is the seventh Brazilian state to implement such a system. The change is coming after more than twenty judges received police protection from death threats by gangs and organized crime.
Under the new system, three judges will rotate every sixty days and all decisions will be signed by the principal judge. Variations of the system were used to protect judges in Colombia in the 1990s.
This is obviously an extreme development, and the safety of the judiciary must be taken seriously. But it comes at a serious cost — the accused will not be able to know the identity of, the very person who will be condemning them to prison (or worse). It’s a dark moment for everyone when due process must be diluted for the sake of judicial safety.
Some are glorious temples to the administration of justice. Others are originally built as school buildings, retrofitted to house courtrooms and judges’ chambers, and must combat mold, crumbling walls, and occasional gunfire. The Tampa Bay Times offers an insightful report on the challenges faced by Florida’s 2d District Court of Appeal in their substandard building, and the resource allocation issues underlying their request for new quarters.
In the wake of the shooting of state judge Joseph Bruzzese on the steps of the Steubenville courthouse in August, the Ohio legislature has introduced a bipartisan bill to shield judges’ personal information from the public. The bill is still in its very early stages.
It is not hard to see why a bill like this might be necessary, but that realization is tinged with sadness. Judges are most effective when they are full members of the community, enjoying the same pleasures (and suffering the same indignities) as ordinary citizens. Grocery shopping, attending community events, waiting in line at the DMV, and similar activities foster an appreciation for everyday life that a judge needs to be an effective mediator, problem-solver, and voice for the community. When our judges are too cut off from the public, or exist in elite bubbles, they cannot have that effectiveness.
The benefits here of keeping a judge’s personal information from the public may well outweigh the costs. But we should be careful not to create a slippery slope in which the public and its judges lose critical opportunities for normal, everyday interaction.
Following a surge of acid-throwing attacks across the United Kingdom, courts across England and Wales are asking visitors to take a sip from any bottles they bring into the courthouse. There are already reports of long security lines at one courthouse that has implemented the new policy.
In an order issued by Chief Justice Mark Cady, the Iowa Supreme Court yesterday banned firearms from all courthouses and justice centers in the state. The statewide regulation does not extend to law enforcement officials who are on duty in the buildings.
Although about half the counties in Iowa already restrict or ban weapons in courthouses, the Supreme Court rule creates a uniform statewide regulation.
Cady said in the order said that while the weapons policies were implemented to make the courtrooms safer, they have “failed to provide uniform protection across the state and throughout every courthouse.”
He acknowledged implementing a statewide weapons policy and the issue of restricting weapons is difficult, and this becomes more complex because city and county offices are within many court buildings. But he added it’s the court’s “constitutional responsibility” to make these buildings safe “before history records more acts of courthouse violence.”