ABA Creates Task Force to Deal with Pandemic; Courts Take Further Steps to Prevent Spread of Coronavirus

March 20, 2020

On March 13, 2020, the American Bar Association created the Task Force on Legal Needs Arising Out of the 2020 Pandemic, chaired by James J. Sandman, the former president of the Legal Services Corporation. The task force will include up to 20 representatives from top legal organizations in the United States. The group will identify legal needs arising from the pandemic, make recommendations to address those needs, and mobilize volunteer lawyers and legal professionals for people who need help.

Meanwhile, state and federal courts across the country are rapidly responding to the impacts of COVID-19. NCSC has a newly launched website that is tracking state courts’ response to coronavirus on a daily basis. The website includes visuals and the “5 most common efforts state courts are taking.” Courts are increasingly restricting physical access to courthouses and in-person proceedings, requiring telephone conferences and hearings, postponing jury trials, granting extensions for court deadlines including fines and fees, and closing altogether to protect people and prevent further spread of the virus. Law360 also created a map to visualize the changes to federal and state courts’ operations and provide links to state-by-state resources.

Federal courts

At the highest level, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order extending deadlines on matters prior to rulings on petitions for certioriari, postponed oral arguments scheduled for the March 2020 session, and closed the Court to tourists until further notice. The Court continues business operations, noting remote working capabilities will reduce the number of employees in the building.

The Federal Courts website continues to track and update orders issued from U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. District Courts, and U.S. Bankruptcy Courts concerning court business, operating status, and public and employee safety. On March 16, 2020, the Second Circuit ordered that filing dates and other deadlines set out in the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, Local Rules, and the court’s orders are extended or tolled, as appropriate, by 21 days, through May 17, 2020, to alleviate any influx of motions for extensions of time. On March 17, 2020, the Ninth Circuit issued a notice closing the courthouse to the public, reassessing oral arguments set for March, April, and May, allowing parties to seek a 60-day extension of time, and strongly encouraging all communications by ECF and email.

State courts

State courts are taking similar measures dependent on the jurisdiction. North Dakota, Arizona, and Hawaii are restricting or postponing jury trials, and New Hampshire, Florida, and Tennessee are restricting entrance to the courts.

In Washington, where the first case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was confirmed, jury trials in many courts have been postponed until late April. Here in Colorado, all civil, criminal, and grand jury selections and trials scheduled to start before April 3 are postponed until further notice.

Resources for Courts

Courts are now finding alternative methods to minimize the disruption in court proceedings by embracing telephone and video conferencing. State courts in Massachusetts, Alaska, Delaware, and Kentucky now require tele-hearings and tele-conferencing. IAALS’ publication Eighteen Ways Courts Should Use Technology to Better Serve Their Customers details the process and benefits of allowing customers to appear in court by telephone or videoconference with benefits including less congestion in the courthouse and courtroom; lower fees associated with lawyers sitting in courtrooms (and charging their clients); and customers not needing to take time off work to travel, park, and wait.

Court use of remote audio and video conferencing is a key component of the civil justice reform recommendations adopted in 2016 by the Conference of Chief Justices, in Call To Action: Achieving Civil Justice for All (Recommendation 13) along with an Appendix (Appendix G) devoted to findings and recommendations on remote conferencing for courts.

With the sudden need for social distancing and the coronavirus pandemic, these resources provide guidance to all users of the court system.

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