About two dozen U.S. district courts have posted orders that suspend jury trials or grand jury proceedings, and scale back other courthouse activities in response to a sharp nationwide rise in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases.
The surge in new court orders in recent weeks marks a significant pause in efforts by federal courts to resume full operations.
Although courts have safely conducted jury trials during the pandemic, and many of the nation’s 94 districts are still scheduling jury trials, several judges said that spikes in new diagnoses and hospitalizations have made the convening of juries an unacceptable risk. Some said they expect conditions to worsen as winter hits.
“In order to resume jury trials, we will need to see the key health markers, as measured by the Colorado Department of Health, go down to acceptable levels,” said Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer, of the District of Colorado. “I am concerned that the markers will stay high for several months, despite recent efforts by the governor and metro-area mayors to put in place new restrictions.”
The orders issued in recent weeks affect courts in most regions of the country, but they are especially pronounced in cold-weather areas in the North, Midwest, and Plains states. Orders suspending jury trials or grand jury sessions have been posted since mid-October on 25 district court websites, while an additional dozen courts have continued suspensions that were already in effect.
The districts posting recent orders are: Alaska; Arizona; Eastern District of Arkansas; Colorado; Northern, Central and Southern Districts of Illinois; Northern and Southern Districts of Indiana; Kansas; Eastern and Western Districts of Kentucky; Maine; Maryland; Minnesota; Western District of Missouri; Nebraska; Nevada; Northern District of Oklahoma; Western District of Pennsylvania; Western District of Texas; Utah; Eastern District of Virginia; Eastern District of Washington; and Western District of Wisconsin.
In addition, the Northern District of New York has postponed jury trials until Jan. 19 without issuing a court order, after discussions among judges, the Federal Public Defender, and the U.S. attorney’s office. And the District of Idaho has lowered its courtroom capacity from 50 to 10.
“We have seen a large uptick in cases after each major event, and with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s coming, it was thought more prudent to suspend jury trials,” said John M. Domurad, clerk of court of the Northern District of New York. “We are actively encouraging doing other proceedings remotely.”
A few courts have moved in the opposite direction, recently resuming jury trials based on local conditions. And many districts have maintained jury trials throughout the COVID-19 emergency.