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Legal proceedings around the country move back into courtrooms, cautiously

Michigan Judge Denise Langford Morris works from home these days, shorts and a tank top under her stately robe, double-strand pearls and full makeup on display for the Zoom camera, working long hours to  keep the wheels of justice turning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

She had heard 22 witnesses and signed off on 125 exhibits when the murder trial she was hearing was abruptly halted in March and the courthouse cleared over health concerns.

Judge Denise Langford Morris

“I am now trying to get approval to proceed with that jury since it is already empaneled. I can bring them in so long as we have the building available. I have to wait for the Supreme Court Administrative Office to decide,” said Morris, a circuit judge in Oakland County, about 100 miles from Detroit.

Michigan is preparing to move back to full capacity in courthouses, with numerous restrictions.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spiral in the U.S., courts in various states are in different stages of operation. New Jersey plans to resume jury trials in September using a system of remote jury selection, but with in-person proceedings. Officials there say waiting is not an option.

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Jury summonses in New Jersey began going out last week and jury selection is set for mid-September, according to a recent Zoom news conference. Criminal trials will be the first to begin and are expected to take no more than two weeks.

Acting Administrative Director of New Jersey’s courts Judge Glenn A. Grant said that while less than 2% of cases go to trial, there is already a backlog.

“Of the 4,700 defendants sitting in county jails, more than 2,000 have yet to be indicted, and civil litigants are also waiting,” Grant said in the news conference.

The pandemic shuttered courthouses across the country as the coronavirus continued to spread, with most courts suspending trials and instead, conducting hearings remotely, using technology.

Morris, who hears both criminal and civil cases, works with a tablet, two laptops and three cell phones and all serve a purpose in her remote courtroom, she said.

“I have four fulltime staff members that work with me and are usually in court with me handing me every file I need.”

Now, she uses OneDrive to look up police reports, investigations and other necessary documents for her work. Some defendants do not have good Wi-Fi signals, so she is constantly having to check with everyone involved to make sure they have heard everything during the Zoom hearings.

“I don’t have a big backlog, but everything just takes longer to get through,” Morris said. Her Thursdays usually involve hearing the docket from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., but with all the added requirements, her day can go much longer.

Each state is different

In Arizona, there is no date for complete reopening, but much of the ongoing court operations are running smoothly.

Superior Court Judge Chris Whitten, who handles juvenile dependencies when the state steps in and removes children from their home, said many of the remote hearings he has been having will continue “long after the virus is in our rear-view mirror.” Instead of forcing a parent to take a half-day off work for a 15-minute scheduling hearing, for example, that parent can step outside the office and participate in a Zoom hearing.

Phoenix Superior Judge Chris Witten
Superior Court Judge Chris Whitten

“Video conferencing has gone very well,” Whitten said. “There are definitely things about it I would keep forever.” But when it comes to something as serious as terminating parental rights, he would much rather hold that hearing in the courthouse with all parties present, he said.

NOLO, a legal justice site, offers a 50-State Tracker on where things stand with the courts.

Among NOLO’s findings were that courts in Colorado are continuing operations on an emergency basis and have suspended jury calls until Sept. 3; in Illinois, some circuits resumed June 18 on a limited basis; in Maryland, jury trials are set to resume in Phase 5 starting Oct. 5.

Civil and criminal jury trials in New Jersey’s 15 districts were suspended in March until further notice when Gov. Phil Murphy issues a stay-at-home order for nonessential businesses and

In Florida, where the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase, most of the state’s court proceedings remain on hold. Florida Chief Justice Charles T. Canady is considering a pilot program for remote civil jury trials beginning in October.

Statewide grand jury proceedings were scheduled to resume July 27, according to Constitutionally mandated hearings have been taking place since restrictions went in place March 13.

The Miami-Dade Circuit Court, part of a five-circuit group, is testing virtual civil jury trials and in the Broward Circuit, Judge Jack Toter is conducting his own remote experiments. One of his most recent experiments was inviting prospective jurors to a Zoom meeting July 10 for voir dire. The fictitious case included questions coordinated by members of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

Florida Today reported that the judicial system in Brevard county has nearly ceased all operations as COVID-19 cases have increased.

“The impact means many poor defendants are stuck in county jail and the prosecutor-defense deals that keep the criminal justice system moving are harder to reach without in-person meetings,” the newspaper reported.

The Supreme Court of Florida issued an administrative order on the matter, saying it will proceed with caution.

In the tiny state of Vermont, criminal jury trials are about to begin again in courthouses. The administrators of Vermont’s judiciary are considering recommendations in a new report on how to restart the in-person process. The report calls for the judiciary to undergo “extensive preparation” before the courts even send notices to prospective jurors.

The challenges involved may make it impossible to meet the Sept. 1 deadline, however, according to the The Barr Montpelier Times Argus.

“Planning will take time and, as this report suggests, jury work cannot begin in a unit until that unit has a unit plan in place, potential jurors are educated about the safety measures in place, adequate plans for cleaning have been instituted, modifications to the physical layout or other accommodations to provide for social distancing have been made and all air systems in courthouses have been determined to provide safe and adequate air handling. There is much work to be done on all of these fronts,” the report stated.

The U.S. Courts notes that a “comprehensive new report on conducting federal jury trials and convening grand juries during the pandemic details the number of factors for courts to consider, from changes to prospective juror questionnaires to creating safe spaces for jurors to deliberate safely.

“Jury trials are the bedrock of our justice system, expressly provided for in the Constitution and in the Sixth and Seventh Amendments,” the report says. “When each court determines that the time is right, the judiciary must reconstitute jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The newly released 16-page report was written by federal trial judges, court executives and those representing the federal defender community and the Department of Justice as part of the COVID-19 Judiciary Task Force.

“There is no one-size fits all approach, and not all of the suggestions will be necessary, practical, or feasible in all districts,” the report states. “At its core, this report offers guidance to help individual courts consider the multitude of issues that will impact reconvening jury trials in our federal courts.”