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 leave the courthouse. If they refuse, Marx said in her latest administrative order, they will be given a trespass order by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.”



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 Appeals to stop the two-week trial that was supposed to begin Monday.

Before the Texas Supreme Court, they argued that their lead trial counsel recently lost his father-in-law to COVID-19. The death “makes the risks associated with this trial much more onerous for counsel and his family.” The trial team members’ families include an elderly cancer survivor and immunocompromised relatives who might be exposed when the lawyers return from Houston. Also, a “key witness” currently “has the coronavirus and can’t testify.” Persistence paid.



Optimism in East Texas

We return now to Judge Amos Mazzant’s federal courtroom in Sherman, Texas. COVID-19 caused a mistrial last year, when jurors, lawyers and court staff become infected mid-trial. We covered it, most recently, here.

Judge Mazzant has reset the jury trial for March 8, 2021. The trial date will either represent a return to normalcy or misplaced optimism.

Time will tell. If it occurs, the two-week trial will overlap with the anniversary of the national shutdown.



It’s Not Just the Pandemic, Unfortunately.

Even though jury trials are, with limited exceptions, on hold, many federal courthouses have managed to stay open throughout this winter surge of the virus. But as we know all too well here in Washington, DC, the pandemic is only one obstacle to normalcy.

We just received this order from the US District Court for the District of Minnesota:

Due to security threats made against federal buildings and courthouses in the District of Minnesota, the United States Courthouses located in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Fergus Falls will be closed from 12:00 a.m. on Sunday, January 17, 2021, through 5:00 a.m. on Thursday, January 21, 2021. At the United States Courthouse located in Duluth, the US District Court, US Bankruptcy Court and US Probation and Pretrial Office will be closed for the same period. The court has consulted with the US Marshal’s Service and the General Services Administration in making this decision.

We expect to see other such orders in the next several days. We hope it is not the beginning of a trend.



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.



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

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