May 26, 2020
Like every other aspect of society, our nation’s court system has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the National Center for State Courts, 34 states and the District of Columbia have completely suspended in-person court activities. In other states, local courts have been given the option of suspending in-person court hearings. Still, the essential work of the court system continues. Criminal arraignments, bond hearings, juvenile delinquency detention hearings, involuntary commitment hearings are examples of time-sensitive matters, involving significant rights, that must proceed despite the pandemic. Courts are expanding their ability to use technology to conduct court hearings virtually. “State courts are the heart of the American system of justice,” said Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, President of the Conference of Chief Justices. “Collectively, we are working together to protect public health while also finding innovative ways to keep the courts open for business.”
Although court business has not stopped, court activity has significantly declined during the pandemic. Process servers report that business has declined sharply. Most states have imposed a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions in response to the pandemic. The moratoriums are an effort to provide financial relief to homeowners and renters during this difficult time. In New York, divorces and marriages were briefly put on hold.
Nationwide quarantines will likely result in a decline in certain types of legal cases. The steep decline in highway traffic and retail shopping will undoubtedly result in a reduction of personal injury lawsuits. Most jurisdictions have reported a significant decline in criminal activity and arrests during the pandemic.
Covid-19 is expected to lead to an increase in other legal cases. Once the moratorium on foreclosures and eviction is lifted, there will likely be an increase in foreclosures and evictions due to the increase in unemployment. Bankruptcies are also expected to increase.
There will also be lawsuits related to Covid-19. Although Congress is considering bills that would provide liability from Covid-19 related lawsuits, lawsuits have already been filed against nursing homes, cruise lines, fitness chains, and prisons.
Jury trials have been suspended across the country since mid-March, resulting in a backlog of cases and concerns about when jury trials will be able to resume. Jury trials are required by both the federal and state constitutions yet court administrators across the country are uncertain about when it will be safe to resume jury service. Jury service typically involves assembling a large group of potential jurors and then choosing a smaller group to serve together for the duration of a trial. If a juror were to test positive for the coronavirus during a trial, it could result in a mistrial and require the litigants and the court to re-start the trial with a new jury. In Florida, Chief Justice Charles Canady has formed a workgroup to develop a pilot program for civil jury trials to be held using remote technology. The idea of virtual jury trials presents daunting technological and legal challenges, however. One issue is making sure that jurors have access to reliable internet connections. Some legal experts believe that virtual jury trials in criminal cases would compromise a criminal defendant’s right to confront witnesses, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.