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Green Sprouts

In the US District Court for the Western District of Texas, Judge Alan Albright's closely watched patent trial is underway. The US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia just issued a notice that criminal jury trials would resume March 1. In Long Island, jury selection has been set for the bellweather opioid trial brought by the New York Attorney General. Spring has sprung.

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Reopening, Take 2?

Here's the headline from yesterday's Palm Beach Post: “Jury trials begin again in Palm Beach County as coronavirus infections continue to rise.” Palm Beach County will begin holding jury trials for both criminal and civil cases in the coming weeks. According to the chief judge, Krista Marx, “It's about sending the legal community and the community at large the message that we are stepping back into normalcy, cautiously and slowly.” Guidelines for the Supreme Court of Florida require that a county's positivity rate must be below 10% for two weeks to return to in-person proceedings. As of Monday, Palm Beach County's rate was down to 8.7%. The Post reports: “Across the state during the past two weeks, Florida has averaged 9.3%, nearly double the 5% needed to combat the spread of the virus.” The upcoming trials won't be for everyone. According to the Post: “Those who are not an immediate party to cases, such as extended family and other onlookers, will be told to...

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Looks Like We Made It

The Trump administration departs. The Biden administration arrives. But for the courts, the inauguration is no magic shot in the arm (as they say). Appeals courts have been reluctant to second-guess trial courts' approaches to COVID-19, at least explicitly. But the Texas Supreme Court has taken a different approach this week. According to Texas Lawyer: [The Texas Supreme Court] has hit the brakes on an in-person jury trial in Houston this week, even though justices last year denied similar requests to continue trials as COVID-19 spread across the Lone Star State. Yet this time, as infection rates—reaching their highest point ever—have begun overrunning intensive care units in some Texas cities, the justices have issued an about-face by granting an emergency motion to stay.   New York litigators from Davis Polk & Wardell first asked for a trial continuance that was denied by Judge Mike Englehart. Next, they lost a bid from Houston's 14th Court of...

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All Eyes on Georgia

Americans are asking: “We know about Georgia's elections, but what about its courts?” We're here to tell you. On Friday, the Georgia Supreme Court extended its prohibition on jury trials. The order notes that when the emergency is finally lifted, it will still be another month before trials start. And “[i]t also should be recognized that there are substantial backlogs of unindicted and untried cases, and due to ongoing public health precautions, these proceedings will not occur at the scale or with the speed they occurred before the pandemic.” It would appear that civil trials are not returning to Georgia state court any time soon. In federal court, the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, in Atlanta, has continued all jury trials that were set for January and February.

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Lawyers and Judges Battle over COVID-19

Requests for COVID-19-related trial delays can lead to strife between lawyers and judges—and crazy things can happen. We see this most recently in San Bernadino, California, where a civil jury trial has been interrupted in the middle of jury selection. The Sun has the story, which we paraphrase: An attorney who allegedly tested positive for COVID-19 amid San Bernardino County’s largest civil trial since the start of the pandemic claims court personnel failed to inform dozens of potential jurors that he may have inadvertently exposed them to the virus.   The attorney, who represents the defendants, made the claim in a motion, prompting the judge to halt jury selection until Feb. 15.   “The court refused to inform potential jurors that they had been exposed to someone contagious with COVID-19,” the Nov. 10 motion states. “Far from contact tracing, the court actually withheld information from those who may have been exposed.”   Plaintiff’s...

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Competing Approaches in South Carolina

Last week saw differing approaches to the pandemic in South Carolina. In the state court system, Chief Justice Don Beatty suspended all state civil and criminal jury trials, finding “that in light of the ongoing increase in COVID-19 cases throughout South Carolina, and the expectation by the medical community and experts that the number of positive cases will continue to increase in the near future, it is prudent to once again make changes to the operations of the circuit courts for the protection of those who work within the courts, as well as those who serve our state by participating in jury service…It is ordered that the circuit courts statewide shall not commence any jury trial after December 4, 2020.” In federal court, however, US District Judge J. Michelle Childs did not react well to a defendant’s suggestion that a requested stay might not matter that much anyway, given the pandemic. She wrote: “Defendant is severely mistaken that ‘due to the global...

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Trial by Webex, but Not Zoom?

Litigation by Zoom is not novel at this point. Depositions by Zoom, motions hearings by Zoom, bench trials by Zoom—it’s all become commonplace. While federal civil jury trials by Zoom have been rare, there have been many in various state courts. And while we know from our daily lives that other videoconferencing services are available (Teams, Webex, GoToMeeting, Collaborate), Zoom predominates in pandemic litigation. It was curious, then, to see a ruling from the US Court of Federal Claims. Confronted with a routine discovery motion for leave to take depositions remotely pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 30(b)(4), which requires such leave in the absence of a stipulation, Judge Charles Lettow wrote: “In the circumstances at hand, the court GRANTS leave for depositions to be taken either telephonically or by Webex. Zoom should not be used, absent proof that such use would be secure.” It seems that the parties did not direct the court to...

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A Mistrial, without a Positive Case

In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Superior Court for Mecklenburg County attempted to hold its first pandemic jury trial, starting November 16. Things did not go well. First, during the evidence phase, a jury was excused after reporting a possible exposure. He later tested negative. Then, jury deliberations were suspended for a week when a juror began experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms. That juror too tested negative. Then, on Monday, a jury who traveled during Thanksgiving notified the court of being exposed to relatives who were not showing COVID-19 symptoms. The courthouse was trying to arrange testing for that juror. The result? A mistrial, without a positive test. Meanwhile, the county reports that more than 700 felony cases are awaiting trial, including 100 homicide cases and another 150 involving rapes, assaults and other violent offenses. According to the Charlotte Observer, “the statewide surge in new COVID-19 cases is already surpassing some of the...

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Dark Winter for Trial Lawyers

Today there is a wave of news. Delaware froze jury trials, although only through December 4. New York state courts have suspended jury trials indefinitely. New Jersey has continued all jury trials, except one that is in progress. Tennessee suspended jury trials through January 31. Vermont, one of the states least impacted by the pandemic, never resumed holding jury trials, and it has canceled its plans to do so in December. Alaska has shut down jury trials through at least January 4. Pennsylvania has suspended most courthouse operations, including jury trials, statewide—just days after leaving it up to individual jurisdictions. And the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana has suspended all jury trials through January 25. Meanwhile, in the suspended US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas breach of contract trial in Judge Amos Mazzant’s courtroom, which we’ve covered previously, now 13 participants—including two jurors, two people...

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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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