With the closure of schools, restaurants, movies, churches, entertainment venues, sports activities, all states and the District of Columbia must consider closing all courts except for emergency matters. While each state must weigh the decision against the health options, the health options and possible loss of life must outweigh any other considerations. Today, the Trump administration recommended no public gatherings over 10 persons.
I was last in court on March 5, 6 with a client. The large Maryland criminal courtroom was filled with standing room only. As the person sitting in front of me wearing a mask, began coughing, I became nervous. One-week later Friday, March 13, 2020, Maryland Governor Hogan closed all Maryland state courts to the public until April 3, 2020. In Michigan, state courts have recommended the postponement of all civil and criminal trials unless a defendant is in custody.
Large court rooms are a hotbed of germs on even any non-Coronavirus pandemic day. It would be a grave undertaking to close courts but one that must be done, sooner rather than later. This will mean criminal defendants will have their cases suspended. Others will remain indefinitely in jail. Judges can postpone for good cause to avoid a defendant’s right to constitutional speedy trial issues.
And more persons arrested will occupy jails. Bail cases would need to continue to be heard to lessen the overflow of jails. The concerns in criminal cases involve delaying a defendant’s freedom versus the possibility of spread of Coronavirus. It’s a tough decision.
Federal courts in Connecticut and Massachusetts postponed all jury trials until late March. Other federal courts have restricted entry to any one with flu like symptoms but left the courts open. As of this writing, Manhattan courts are functioning as usual—even though just about everything else in Manhattan is closed from Broadway plays, movies, restaurants and some gyms and fitness facilities. Courts are likely more of a hotbed of germs or at least equally a health risk as the establishments already closed in New York. In Washington, D.C. the federal courthouse will be restricted to judges and court staff and credentialed media. Not quite sure why credentialed media should be allowed if there are no ongoing trials or court business.
Civil cases including divorces, contract claims, probate and other family law disputes are not worth the risk. The one exception being domestic violence or stay away order cases which should count as an emergency. Some courts already halted evictions.
Right now, some states are doing closures of some courts but not others. The spread of Covid-19 is unrelenting. It doesn’t distinguish between judges, lawyers, witnesses, victims, courtroom bailiffs, defendants or courtroom interpreters. The Trump administration with the recommendation of the CDC now recommends against 10 or more folks congregating in the same space. Court houses should be no exception.
Governors must take the necessary steps to protect life and health of its citizens. I would recommend that the 50 governors, mayor of the District of Columbia and chief justices of the state court houses convene via teleconference and offer suggestions on how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 throughout the judicial system. As each state is different in needs, the Coronavirus is the same everywhere in terms of how it spreads and potentially kills.
Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former Baltimore prosecutor.