Everyone wants a return to normalcy amid the coronavirus outbreak, but it’s going to come gradually, not all at once. If we go back to doing the same things we were doing prior to the pandemic, we’re bound to experience another wave of cases. So as we work towards gradually getting back to a sense of normalcy, we have to examine how certain areas of life will adapt to this new normal. One area that is of specific interest to us is the court system.
We only need to look to New York to see just how deadly this virus can be, and their handling of the pandemic in their court system further reflects the dangers of handling the problem in the wrong way. In mid-March, lawyers, court officers and clerks packed a small Brooklyn courtroom to conduct business as usual under the order of Judge Johnny Lee Baynes. Social distancing guidelines were not being followed, and when one lawyer spoke up, she recalled being told “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
Two weeks later, the judge who presided over that court was dead as a result of complications of the coronavirus, and others who were present that day also contracted the virus. We are certainly more informed now than we were a month ago, but courtrooms will certainly be busy once they reopen, and we need to be smart about how we move forward to avoid another potentially devastating outbreak.
How Should Court Reopen?
We don’t believe that we have all the answers, but if Minnesota courts consider some or all of the following suggestions, we believe our state can begin to reopen the court system and help everyone involved stay safe.
Remote Courtrooms – First, let’s avoid jamming everyone into the court at once. Judges and even attorneys could develop a remote courtroom system where we wouldn’t need to be in close proximity to one another. Let low-level cases be heard remotely or via telephone conference to help keep people at a safe distance when we first try to reopen to courts.
Let Everyone Have Equal Access – As we’ve talked about on the blog, defense attorneys don’t have the same access to court documents as prosecutors do. That needs to change if we’re going to give defendants a fair shake.
Increased Hygiene and Masks – Studies have shown that we need to continue practicing safe hand washing even as we come out of social distancing. Everyone needs to buy into their role in reducing the spread, because we’ve seen how this virus can spread even when patients are asymptomatic. New York recently ordered that the public are now required to wear masks in public. This would be a good idea to consider if we’re going to be physically back in the courtroom.
Limit Required Appearances – We should also reexamine whether a defendant needs to be present during certain appearances. Some appearances should be able to be conducted over the phone, over a video link or with an attorney acting in their place. We don’t need defendants showing up for unnecessary appearances, so we should really only allow people to show up if it’s absolutely crucial to their case.
Delay, Delay, Delay – There are obviously going to be backlogs, and that has to be okay for the time being. Delay cases and push back appearances, eventually we’ll chip away at the case log. If we try to do too much, too soon, we could see another wave of the virus. Judges need to be fine granting continuances and pushing back trial dates so that everyone can be adequately prepared and we limit traffic in and out of the courthouse.
We need to start thinking about how we’re going to safely reopen to court system so we don’t screw this up when the moment arrives.