The nation’s fastest federal district court is the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division. A complex civil case can go from complaint to trial in about eight months. They’ve been holding in-person hearings in Alexandria for months.
Monday, a criminal jury trial was underway in Judge Thomas Selby Ellis’s courtroom. The defendant is charged with production and distribution of child pornography (in this case, sending an Instagram video to an underage sexual partner depicting them having sex). There are two assistant US attorneys and one defense attorney, easing the logistics of trial. The court has moved this case with all due speed. The defendant was arraigned on March 13, as the nation was locking down. Just seven months later, he is at trial, almost as if there had been no pandemic. The trial date was set on June 30, and in keeping with Alexandria practice, it has stuck.
Judge Ellis issued an order at the start of the trial stating: “Indicators from state health officials are is that the COVID-19 virus is not contained within the Eastern District of Virginia and the urgent nature of this trial will not allow the court to delay until it is safer to call jurors to report.” Judge Ellis therefore “determined that an emergency hardship situation is present where accommodations are needed to be taken by the court to protect the health and safety of jurors and minimize exposure to the virus in order for them to be able to serve.” He ordered the jurors to remain within the courthouse all day, “and the Clerk is to procure jury meals as necessary.”