The devastating effects of the COVID 19 virus have greatly changed the way Americans live their lives. And the virus is presently making itself known through the daily operations of the U.S. court system as local courts, prisons, and jails continue their scramble to adjust the way they carry on with their business. All levels of the court system have been affected by the pandemic and as of now, all indicators suggest the impact on the judicial system from the coronavirus is likely to grow.
The Supreme Court
The highest court in the nation is still publishing opinions and making decisions that will help shape the future of the country. However, the justices of the supreme court are working more privately during the coronavirus ordeal. At this time, no visitors are allowed to the supreme court and oral arguments are suspended until it is deemed safe to host them again.
Supreme Court justices report they are willing to consider other methods of settling the issues on its backlog if oral arguments are not soon permitted. This is a big step for a court that has made it a point in the past to resist technology.
Jurisdictions around the country are finding a number of ways to do their part to mitigate the risks for people taking part in judicial proceedings. Some jurisdictions have excused citizens who are 60 years old and over from appearing in court due to the increased risk posed to older people by the coronavirus. Other unprecedented actions taken by local courts include:
- The suspension of all criminal and civil trials in Los Angeles, California.
- Mass bail and plea hearings in Cleveland, Ohio
- Suspension of criminal trials in the state of New Jersey.
While the actions taken by these jurisdictions are more than understandable under the circumstances, there are some problems that have resulted from these actions. The restrictions on court proceedings could have a great impact on the lives of people who are experiencing pressing matters that require immediate attention from the courts. Members of these groups include incarcerated individuals awaiting their day in court, citizens in need of a protective order, members of local communities awaiting a custody decision, and tenants who are facing eviction proceedings.
The measures taken by courts to protect the public against the coronavirus is increasing the backlog of many court systems that were already overburdened with cases. This is true for both state and federal courts. It is also true for the immigration courts that are presently backlogged with more than 1 million cases.
Impact to Lawyers
Lawyers have not gone unaffected by the coronavirus. Many law offices are now closed and the number of attorneys that can take part in a meeting is restricted in many jurisdictions. That doesn’t mean the job is indefinitely on hold, however; some law firms have asked that their attorneys continue their job duties from home.
In general, lawyers are still working with their clients on cases, but they’ve had to get creative with case preparation, especially if the case in question has been delayed.
Jails and prisons
Inmates serving time in prisons across the country as well as individuals awaiting a court appearance in a local jail must try to keep themselves safe from the coronavirus while living in a most difficult environment. The close quarters that inmates are forced to live in make it difficult to practice social distancing protocols. This is an especially dangerous condition when you consider the fact it may be many days before an infected person shows symptoms of carrying the coronavirus. And this is if the carrier ever shows symptoms at all.
The federal prison system decided to suspend visits from both family members and attorneys in an attempt to keep the virus out of the 122 prison facilities maintained by the federal government. There are presently more than two million individuals incarcerated in the jails and prisons of America. A significant number of these individuals are over the age of 50 which makes them particularly vulnerable to the disease.