U.S. Courts and Social Distancing: How Is This Being Practiced?

As federal district courts begin to resume operations halted because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, they are putting in place social distancing rules for grand juries and other personnel.

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey has adopted Covid-19 recovery guidelines for a phased approach to resuming operations. During the initial phase, six-foot social distancing shall be observed and all court proceedings shall be held by video and teleconference, except for grand jury proceedings, which will meet in person.

The federal court for the District of New Jersey court has extended to Aug. 31 its standing order delaying civil and criminal trials and the selection of trial juries. Federal courts located in Trenton, Camden and Newark, New Jersey enforce the criminal and civil statutes of the United States for the entire state of New Jersey.

The Court for the District of New Jersey previously prohibited the empanelment of new grand juries from March 16, 2020 to May 31, 2020. In a May 22 order, the Court extended the prohibition “until further order of the Court.” However, sitting grand juries in each vicinage of the Court were authorized to continue to meet.

Grand juries are set to resume their duties in at least 10 of the country’s 94 federal trial courts, according to a Bloomberg Law review of court orders. “A few more” will seat six- to 12-person juries instead of the 16- to 23-member grand jury, Bloomberg Law says.

Some jurisdictions are not empaneling new grand juries in part because of concerns over the inability to obtain panels that represent a cross-section of the community during the ongoing pandemic. “Essential workers, medical staff, and those at high risk for the virus could be excused from the jury pool and not represented as a result,” Bloomberg Law says.

For example, New Jersey’s “essential” retail businesses allowed to remain open to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic cover more than 20 categories of business.

New Jersey Federal Courts Set Re-Opening Criteria

In May, a Court Security Committee made up of 15 judges adopted a plan to provide guidance designed to help facilitate a phased approach to reopening federal courthouses in the District of New Jersey.

The target date for implementing Phase I was June 1; however, demonstrations in New Jersey over the death of George Floyd caused court leaders to instead begin Phase I of the reopening June 8.

During Phase I, grand juries are to proceed only with a compelling reason to do so, as defined in a memo from the U.S. Attorney to the Chief Judge. When held, grand juries are to meet in reserved locations and abide by social distancing and other safety protocols. Any indictments handed up are to be returned to the duty judge via videoconference.

Each federal judge shall have full autonomy in deciding the repopulation and return-to-work schedule for the members of his/her chambers, Phase I guidelines say. Judges shall continue to conduct proceedings via teleconference and videoconference. The only difference is that many of these conferences will now be conducted from the courthouse.

The Phase I reopening is based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on How Best To Protect Yourself And Others from COVID-19. The guidance says all individuals should:

  • Wash their hands often
  • Avoid close contact
  • Cover their mouths and noses with a cloth face cover when around others
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Clean and disinfect.

The Court will promote the CDC’s guidance through standing orders, postings, signage, and protocols to be implemented in federal courthouses.

In a separate May 22 standing order, the Court said anyone entering or occupying any federal Court facility in the District of New Jersey is required to wear a face covering or mask when in a community setting. This applies to Court staff, security personnel, vendors, contractors, litigants, attorneys, jurors and other members of the public.

The order also requires that “all persons shall engage in social distancing, which requires that individuals maintain a six-foot distance between each other.”

Bloomberg Law says several other courthouses across the country have required visitors to wear masks or face coverings upon entry to limit the spread of the virus. Washington’s federal district court and the D.C. Circuit, which share the same building, were two of the first courts to require face masks.

Among the courts resuming grand juries or petit juries, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia and Montana’s federal district court will use video to conduct proceedings. And while defense attorneys may object, the Courts said the format is perfectly sound, according to Bloomberg Law.

Are Local Courts Open in New Jersey?

An omnibus order of the New Jersey Supreme Court issued April 27 halted all criminal and civil jury trials, small claims and “DC” docket civil claims, and landlord/tenant trials through May 31. That order continues until further notice. There are no in-person Superior Court and Tax Court proceedings, except for extremely limited emergent matters and certain ongoing trials.

As many matters as possible including motions, hearings and case management conferences are to be handled by telephone or video conference.

“This is part of the Judiciary’s social distancing efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus,” the NJ Courts closings information webpage says. Contact the court if you have questions about a scheduled hearing, motion, conference or other matter. You can also sign up to receive text alerts about state court closings and delays.

Municipal Court sessions resumed May 11 by phone or video where local facilities, technology and other resources made it possible.

Contact a New Jersey Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you have been charged with a crime in New Jersey and are concerned about the next steps in your case, you should contact your defense attorney. If you do not have an attorney, contact the Law Offices of Jonathan F. Marshall for legal assistance. An initial consultation is free of charge.

While the coronavirus continues to cause delays and disruptions in some aspects of the judicial process, our attorneys are continuing to handle cases and seeking the dismissal or reduction of charges whenever possible. Our legal team of former prosecutors and public defenders has more than 200 years of combined experience we could be putting toward finding a favorable resolution to your case today.

If you do not have active legal assistance working against the charges you face today, contact our attorneys online or by phone at (877) 450-8301 now. We have multiple offices across New Jersey and can respond to your needs 24/7.