April 8, 2020

Pandemic at the Courthouse Doors

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For more briefing call recordings, commentary, and analysis about COVID-19, visit the ACS COVID-19 Resources page.

As public health experts predict that current social distancing measures may need to be in place weeks or months longer than originally anticipated, federal and state criminal and civil courts must grapple with what that means for judges, parties coming before courts, jurors, and court personnel. Yet, a recent survey of judges found that nearly sixty percent do not feel adequately prepared to make decisions about how to manage their dockets and protect parties’ rights in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.
Many courts have closed or suspended in-person business for the time being to minimize exposure. The suspension of jury trials, legal deadlines, and statutes of limitations, however, could prove harmful to parties in criminal and civil cases seeking to vindicate their rights and, more worrisome, potentially fatal to criminal defendants forced to remain in overcrowded, unsanitary pretrial detention facilities, like Rikers Island, which has already reported COVID-19 cases.
Can courts balance their role as protectors of the rule of law with the public health measures necessary to quell a pandemic?

Russ Feingold, President, American Constitution Society

Elaine Poon, Managing Attorney, Legal Aid Justice Center
Jonathan Smith, Executive Director, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Hon. Shira Scheindlin (Ret.), U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York
Christopher Wright Durocher, Senior Director of Policy and Program, ACS, Moderator