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The Challenges of Courthouse Operations in a Pandemic

When chief judges take questions from their local bars about reopening procedures, one question that frequently comes up is: What happens if a juror tests positive in the midst of a trial? The risk, however, is not just limited to jurors, as we saw last week in the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, in Cincinnati. On Thursday, that court issued General Order 20-32. The order reported that a deputy US marshal (DUSM) stationed at the Potter Stewart Courthouse, who last reported for duty on October 30, became symptomatic on November 1 and was diagnosed as positive on November 5. The order continued: It is understood that while the DUSM may have visited multiple public areas in Potter Stewart during the week of October 26, 2020, through October 30, 2020, including all floors, the CSO station, the guard shack and the snack bar, those areas have since been cleared and disinfected. The DUSM, however, while infected by asymptomatic, came into...

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What Reopening? Dockets on Hold in Multiple US Jurisdictions

The US District Court for the District of Massachusetts has sent out notices seeking information to reschedule federal civil jury trials for 2021. The rest of 2020 is off the table. Meanwhile, many courts that did restart their jury trial dockets are being forced to rethink that. In Tennessee, Memphis courts have put reopening plans on hold—including canceling the scheduled trial for the accused killer of NBA star Lorenzen Wright, which was scheduled to begin yesterday. Cincinnati courts canceled their jury trials, effective yesterday. In Idaho, only one county is open for jury trials. In Michigan, Livingston County postponed jury trials until further notice, as did all neighboring counties. On the other side of the coin, however, a jury trial is underway in a homicide case in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania (Allentown and Easton). And rural counties in North Carolina are launching their first trials this week.

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Struggles in Reopening Federal and State Courts across the Country

Jury trials were scheduled to resume in state court in Massachusetts on October 23. Amid a rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the state, the earliest potential start date has been pushed back by the Supreme Judicial Court until November 9. Massachusetts ranks third in the nation in per capita deaths but has held its numbers down during the summer and fall. Meanwhile, in Youngtown, Ohio, an attempt to hold a jury trial in a vehicular homicide case went off the road. Forty people were summoned for jury duty. One tested positive for COVID-19. Another had symptoms and was transported away for further testing. An additional seven members were already awaiting test results, which is enough to avoid jury service. With a quarter of the jury pool eliminated, a jury could not be selected. This would have been the fifth jury trial in Mahoning County since the courthouse reopened in July, but Ohio cases are heading in the wrong direction.

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Trials Underway in San Francisco and Cleveland Courts

Most of the federal trials that have actually been held during the pandemic have been in rural locales. But yesterday, Judge William Orrick in San Francisco launched an in-person criminal jury trial in a mail-bombing case. Jury selection began with a SurveyMonkey questionnaire. The courtroom is closed to the public but the audio is being broadcast over Zoom to all interested observers. Meanwhile, Cleveland saw its first pandemic jury trial end Friday after five days with the acquittal of an accused murderer. The state court trial was held in a large conference room in the county-owned Global Center for Health Innovation. Everyone was masked except for testifying witnesses. Jurors sat six feet apart behind a plexiglass shield and with shields between them.

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 McDermott’s litigation team monitors US courts as they reopen amid the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.

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