The other day, at my home office, I ran across a note I wrote in one of the notebooks I keep around my desk. I wrote, in the weeks immediately after the President’s declaration of a national emergency on March 13, 2020, “It looks like we may be at home isolating for over a month.” The naivete, the smallness, of this prediction honestly made me shake my head in disbelief. While it was obvious for some time this pandemic was going to hit us and had the potential to be a very significant event in our national life, the eventual enormity of its impact would probably have shocked any of us in the late spring of 2020. Over 600,000 of our fellow citizens have tragically lost their lives to this pandemic, the greatest national crisis in generations. Beyond the cost in human life, the pandemic affected and disrupted the lives of every person, and the function of every institution and government function.
How has the court system fared in navigating through this crisis? Thankfully, we have begun to return to some semblance of normal life, as the incredible effect of our successful national vaccination effort becomes self-evident. While it may not yet be the time to say this is in our rear-view mirror, it is not too early to make some general observations about how we came through this crisis.
Courts across the country responded with creative approaches to the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic. In the face of unprecedented crisis, court systems found themselves without a playbook. But like pilots who are trained to react to inflight crises by following the mantra to first “fly the plane,” courts came together in jurisdictions everywhere by focusing on the critical missions and the available means to accomplish them. In discussions with judges and court administrators from across the country at that time, it became clear we were driven by the same concerns. First, how do we continue the critical mission of the courts? How do we do so in the safest manner, in relation to public health? How do we incorporate guidance from federal, state, and local public health officials? Individual court systems quickly improvised plans to continue operations, with flexible plans to adapt to changing conditions in the pandemic.
The ABA, and the Judicial Division, was part of that effort, supporting judges with information and expertise. One excellent example of this is the May 2020 Judicial Division program entitled "From Jury Summons to Jury Trials: Preparing for the Return of Juries to Courthouses during COVID-19." The panel discussion featured the NCFTJ's own Chief Judge Nannette Brown of the Eastern District of Louisiana, Judge Heather Welch, Presiding Judge of the Marion County Superior Court in Indiana, and Melanie Gilbert, Chief for the Facilities and Security Office for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The program took a detailed look at approaches taken by different federal and state courts as to everything from reopening plans, federal Administrative Office guidance, facilities management issues (such as courthouse ventilation questions), and courthouse access questions. It was an extremely helpful (and very well attended) presentation. Another example was the clearinghouse of national COVID-19 related orders set up and maintained through the leadership of Justice Elizabeth Lang Miers (Ret.). Both examples highlight the commitment to service by our ABA members, and to tackling relevant, timely issues.
Possibly the great revelation of this crisis was willingness of the courts to adapt to new technologies to continue the business of the courts. Zoom hearings quickly became the way to do business, with the user-friendly platform becoming the standard modus operandi for us. While not a perfect system—technical difficulties with multiple remote participants, occasional audio and video snafus—the technology allowed us to continue critical court work through the pandemic. It is unimaginable that this technology will not continue to be important capability for the courts in one way or another.
Jury trials posed the greatest challenge to the courts during the pandemic. The massive logistical challenge of bringing together a substantial number of people into a confined indoor space for extended periods of time while complying with recommended social distancing requirements proved a daunting task, one almost entirely subject to the local community public health situation at any given time. When many communities suffered periods of alarming rates of infection, most courts had no choice but to stand down until jury trials could safely resume. It is only until the last few months that most courts have begun to return to a regular schedule of jury trials.
As I have told members of my legal community recently, I am so proud of the work our court families have done, from members of the bar, judges, court staff, to court security, building maintenance, and custodians. I am proud of the flexibility, ingenuity, and patience everyone involved has shown. And while the effects of the crisis, though improving, continue to reverberate, it's worthy of some reflection that the courts have been so resilient in the face of it. The courts have done their job.