We live in a country with a thriving but typically overburdened judicial system. We’ve all heard that the courts are continually backlogged and judges struggle to keep their bursting dockets moving as swiftly as possible – even under normal circumstances. It is also well known that criminal cases are particularly backlogged, and that certain rules of procedure (like the right to a speedy trial) are incredibly important when it comes to protecting the rights of citizens against the formidable power of the government.
But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, rules must change. Operating as we have for over a century now poses a health hazard the likes of which we have not seen in recent history. But American citizens depend on the court system to settle disputes and protect their freedoms on a daily basis, and access to the courts is a right guaranteed by our Constitution. But what about now? How has the judicial system been affected since COVID-19 made its way into this country?
Common Strategies of Courthouses around the Country
As of the date of the writing of this article, we are in the midst of a 15-day social distancing mandate wherein federal and state courthouses have responded by slowing down or halting their daily functions in a number of ways. Here are some common actions that have taken place.
Extension of Deadlines for Filing
The federal and most state rules of criminal and civil procedure detail the exact number of days that a respondent has to answer a complaint. Failure to timely respond gives the judge the option of granting default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. But many courts are lifting these deadlines in response to this pandemic since access to courts is limited at this time. Sometimes, even statutes of limitations are being lifted.
Extension of Deadlines for Paying Fees and Fines
After a case has been resolved, there may be court fees or fines that need to be paid in a timely fashion. However, since many citizens are not able to work through this social distancing period, many courts have relaxed the due dates for these payments.
Generally Suspending In-Person Proceedings
Many courthouses have partially or totally suspended in-person hearings so that mass numbers of people do not have to make their way through the courthouse.
Using Teleconferences and/or Videoconferences
As an alternative to in-person hearings, many courts are requiring essential or emergent matters to be addressed via videoconferencing. Emergency matters come up in many ways, including domestic violence situations and when people are arrested. Arrested individuals have the right to be seen by a judge within 24 hours of arrest so that they might ask for bail, among other things. Without the ability to bond out, many would stay in jail indefinitely as they wait for their chance to resolve their case – and in the COVID-19 world, this could take months or longer.
In fact, reducing the jail population is a huge concern at the moment, because contagion can spread in jails and prisons that do not have enough space for social distancing to be effective. Therefore, getting people out of jail if they are nonviolent offenders is also becoming a priority in many jurisdictions. Videoconferencing is a safe answer to the problem of emergency hearings that must happen to protect civil rights as well as keeping the prison population safe.
Restricting or Stopping Jury Trials
A jury trial requires people to be in close contact. Most urban courthouses have hundreds of jurors reporting for jury duty every day of the week, which means that literally hundreds of people are in close contact for hours while waiting to be called.
And even once they are called to a courtroom, the members of the panel have to be questioned by attorneys in a process called voir dire – and this process can take hours. During voir dire, the people on the panel sit close together on benches, and those who get chosen for the jury then sit next to one another for the duration of the trial. None of this can take place during responsible social distancing, so many courts have completely or partially stopped holding trials at this time.
Restricting Persons Who Are Allowed to Enter Courthouse
On top of all the rest, for the relatively few people still in need of going to court, many courthouses have instituted a very strict protocol for allowing people in. Most have to have their temperature taken, and if they are feverish in the least, they are not allowed to enter. Others have to complete questionnaires that help the staff determine if they are at a higher risk of being infected than the general public, and if so, they are not allowed to enter.
Although these restrictions vary from state to state, the end result means that, in the near future, we will almost certainly be looking at an enormous backlog of cases that threaten to bring our system of justice to a screeching halt. Criminal defendants are a particular concern for a number of reasons.
First, everyone arrested in the U.S. has the right to a speedy trial. Since some defendants cannot make bail, they are forced to sit in jail awaiting trial. In light of COVID-19, it makes sense to push back speedy even though it is a constitutional right – but for how long? Once the courts open again, there will be such a backlog that defendants may have to sit in jail indefinitely awaiting trial. This may force some innocent people to accept plea bargains that adjudicate them guilty, simply as a means of getting out of jail where they could contract the virus. Likewise, overburdened prosecutors may feel the need to offer numerous relaxed plea bargains simply to “clear their plate” in an attempt to catch up on an unmanageable caseload. Worse yet, they may have to dismiss cases as the speedy trial time limit runs out, simply because they cannot get to them in time.
Although civil matters may be somewhat less strained because only money and not freedom is at stake, the fact is that many of these cases may settle unfavorably simply to avoid a jury trial that could now take years to make it to court.
We Are Here for You
This crisis has left us all a little less certain about our future. If court closures are affecting you and you have any questions regarding what to do next, the attorneys at Mark S. Rubinstein, P.C., are here to help. You can call us directly, or use our online contact form to schedule a free initial consultation. There is no need to come to our office as all consultations can be done on the phone.