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July 27, 2021 Feature

What a Difference a Year Makes

By Judge Willie J. Epps Jr.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s “2019 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary” touted the important role the judiciary plays in civic education.1 The chief justice noted that court opinions are posted online, allowing the public immediate access to the reasoning and logic behind the decisions that impact their lives. He saluted judges throughout the country who have made their courthouses available as forums for civic education, specifically mentioning the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s Justice for All Learning Center in the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in New York City, the Eighth Circuit’s Judicial Learning Center at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, and the Ninth Circuit’s Anthony M. Kennedy Library and Learning Center in the Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse in Sacramento. He celebrated the judges who regularly participate in naturalization ceremonies across the country, becoming the first to greet many new citizens as “our fellow Americans.” He urged his judicial colleagues to continue to promote public confidence in the judiciary, both through their rulings and through civic outreach.

One short year later, notwithstanding the importance of judicial civic engagement, the chief justice’s tone and tenor had shifted.2 In the “2020 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary,” Chief Justice Roberts reminded us that the courts always have had to respond to widespread public health emergencies. About 230 years ago, when our federal courts first convened, “America was at the time suffering under the spread of influenza and, later, yellow fever.”3 The first chief justice, John Jay, “had to adjourn the Court from sitting in Philadelphia due to the yellow fever epidemic that killed 5,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents.”4 Chief Justice Roberts wrote that, about 100 years ago, the last nationwide crisis came with the infectious outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918, which led to cancellation of Supreme Court sessions. Now, after more than a century, during which improvements in medicine have diminished, but not eliminated, the pandemic threat, the judiciary confronts COVID-19.

The chief justice memorialized the herculean efforts of judges and court staff to adapt. Court hearings of all kinds went virtual. “Judges quickly (or at least eventually) learned to use a wide range of available audio and video conferencing tools. But this effort required more than just new technology. Judges needed to adopt innovative approaches to conduct court proceedings.”5 Chief Justice Roberts cited the bankruptcy court, for example, for figuring out how to move forward with complex cases that can often involve 100 or more participating attorneys. He explained that bankruptcy judges “worked with court staff to admit participants to virtual hearings, manage the orderly flow of work, and ensure that public access did not endanger public health.”6 They created new approaches to filing documents and maintaining information security. “Much of this work is not glamorous, but it is essential, and it got done.”7

Proceedings involving new arrests and detained defendants present special challenges. Chief Justice Roberts commended judges, lawyers, and criminal defendants for moving forward via video and telephone through initial appearances, detention hearings, arraignments, and sentencings. He commented on the courts’ developing new partnerships with law enforcement, corrections facilities, and counsel to ensure that defendants have virtual access to courts and their lawyers. “Courts have used every available avenue to prepare for resumption of jury trials, the bedrock of fairness in our system of justice. Judges and court staff have reconfigured spaces in courtrooms around the country. Many courts have repurposed their largest courtrooms for physical distancing and reconfigured jury boxes to extend into public gallery areas.”8

What a difference a year makes.

We now see a light at the end of this tunnel. My courtroom, like many of yours, has installed plexiglass in key spaces to physically separate participants. Some areas of my courthouse have high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to minimize the risk of virus transmission. Mask wearing in public spaces inside the courthouse is still required, but judges now have discretion as to whether masks need to be worn in their courtroom. Court staff have returned to work, in person. Life is beginning to feel somewhat normal—or at least “new normal.”

We have been through a lot and have lost a lot. In the United States, over 33 million COVID-19 cases have been reported and 600,000 deaths so far. Judicial heroes have fallen, and deans of the trial bar have passed due to this ongoing pandemic. May we never forget. This issue is designed to catalog our collective COVID-19 fight and struggle. Hope you enjoy reading and learning. Lastly, thankful that most of us are fully vaccinated, I pray that you and your family remain healthy and safe.


1. See John G. Roberts Jr., 2019 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary (Dec. 31, 2019),

2. See John G. Roberts Jr., 2020 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary (Dec. 31, 2020),

3. Id. at 1.

4. Id. at 2.

5. Id.

6. Id.

7. Id. at 3.

8. Id.

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By Judge Willie J. Epps Jr.