Many federal courts around the country are reimposing restrictions to protect the public as COVID-19 numbers continue to skyrocket. Many courts reopened amidst the pandemic with increased safety protocols in place, but now the Eastern District of Texas, among other U.S. district courts, have paused or postponed grand jury proceedings and jury trials to respond to current spikes in COVID-19 cases.
Most recently, a judge in the Eastern District of Texas (Sherman, Texas) paused a federal multiple day jury trial due to a COVID-19 outbreak. In Resman, LLC v. Karya Prop. Mgmt., LLC, No. 4:19-CV-00402, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 198117 (E.D. Tex. 2020), jury selection began November 2, 2020, and ended on November 6, 2020. The parties returned to court on or about November 9 for trial, and by November 12, one juror and one attorney had tested positive for COVID-19. The positive COVID-19 test results by some trial participants provoked other trial participants to test for the virus. Ultimately, the defense refused to proceed with less than six jurors prompting District Judge Amos L. Mazzant to declare a mistrial and to continue the case to 2021.
On November 20, 2020, and just a week after the outbreak in Sherman, Texas, Judge Rodney Gilstrap in the Eastern District of Texas (Marshall, Texas)cancelled all jury trials in his courtroom after thirteen people associated with the case tested positive for COVID-19, including two jurors and four court staff. That same day, an order was entered continuing all future jury trials in the Eastern District of Texas. The Northern and Western districts of Texas postponed all trials scheduled through the end of the year. The Southern District of Texas postponed all trials through January 19, 2021.
The infections impacting the trials above are some of the latest examples of federal courts wrestling with the effects of coronavirus that are happening nationally. Roughly twenty-four other US. District courts have imposed similar restrictions. For example, all criminal jury trials in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia are temporarily suspended, with criminal jury trials to resume on January 19, 2021. Likewise, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia postponed all civil and criminal jury trials until March 1, 2021.
COVID-19’s Impact on the Legal System
The coronavirus poses several challenges to the legal system. For example, continuances present backlogs that will continue to grow once courts reopen. Moreover, we anticipate new waves of litigation seeking to resolve problems created by the pandemic, further adding to the backlog of cases.
COVID-19 has also affected the jury process by creating juror hesitation which runs the risk of reducing juror pools and creating jury pools that do not fairly represent an adequate cross-section of the community. Arguably, COVID-19 could also render witnesses unavailable and impede efforts to collect and present evidence.
Additionally, there is some concern as to how these continuances will affect criminal defendants. Criminal defendants could face potential prejudices due to rescheduling arraignments, motions, trials, and sentencing and we anticipate some arguments regarding violations of the Speedy Trial Act once jury trials resume. However, we anticipate the continuance orders will withstand speedy trial challenges as most courts have deemed the continuances in the defendants’ best interests and necessary to “serve the ends of justice” i.e. to balance public health and safety including the health of jurors, employees, defendants, counsel, and judges. Many court orders are giving scheduling priority to those criminal defendants held in custody once jury trials resume.
It is clear that COVID-19 has impacted the legal system around the country, and it is uncertain how courts will operate in the future. Virtual hearings may become a part of the “new normal” making it possible to conduct court-related functions without participants stepping foot into the courthouse. While it does not appear that courts have attempted virtual jury trials, courts will continue to follow their reopening plans requiring physical barriers at podiums and witness stands, enforcing symptom screenings, masks, and social distancing where in-person trials are needed.