CORONAVIRUS AND THE LEGAL PROFESSION

Pandemic disrupts justice system, courts

March 16, 2020

The COVID-19 virus has not only radically changed the daily lives of Americans, it is beginning to affect the U.S. justice system. Courts, jails, prisons and law firms are all altering the way they conduct business due to COVID-19, and the impact is likely to grow. 

Addressing the dangers of coronavirus may exacerbate the significant backlog of cases in state and federal courts.

Addressing the dangers of coronavirus may exacerbate the significant backlog of cases in state and federal courts.

Alexander Kirch-EyeEm / Getty Images

Courts at all levels are addressing the pandemic differently. The Supreme Court closed its doors to visitors and announced Monday that it was postponing oral arguments through March and early April. The Court will still conduct other business including the justices’ private conference and the release of orders, but some justices may participate by telephone. The 9th Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over areas particularly hard hit by the virus in Washington and California, canceled all en banc hearings for at least one week. Arizona has authorized judges to suspend local court rules and orders if needed, and many state courts are trying to ramp up the use of virtual tools to conduct business.

Some jurisdictions have excused people over 60 years old from jury duty as well as litigants who may be vulnerable to the virus from court proceedings. While courts must balance public safety and the safety of its workers against the Constitutional rights of citizens, any slowdown or restrictions on court operations could have serious implications for people with immediate problems, including the incarcerated awaiting a trial, individuals who need a protective order or custody decisions, and tenants facing evictions.

Measures taken to address the dangers of the coronavirus are expected to exacerbate the significant backlog of cases in state and federal courts, not to mention immigration courts that have a backlog of more than 1 million cases. The Department of Justice shut down a court in Seattle and canceled some hearings in Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere.

Lawyers at large firms are beginning to test positive for the virus, forcing closures of offices and other restrictions such as limiting meetings to fewer than 25 people, curtailing travel, and having more employees work from home.

The close proximity of individuals in prisons and jails poses particular concerns over an outbreak. The Federal Department of Corrections announced that all 122 federal correctional facilities in the country will not allow visits from family, friends or attorneys for 30 days. There are 2.3 million people locked up in federal and state prisons and jails, including more than a quarter million people over age 50, the most vulnerable to the virus.

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