Court Proceedings Delayed: Another Pandemic Problem

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When the pandemic hit the United States, many courthouses closed, and civil and criminal trials were canceled. Time Magazine reports that for the first time in over a hundred years, the Supreme Court rescheduled oral arguments.

A few trials resumed in the fall of 2020, with pandemic precautions like physical distancing and the use of plexiglass barriers. There were also other restrictions. For instance, in certain New York counties, criminal trials were only allowed one at a time. New surges in COVID-19 cases by the end of 2020 forced another suspension of many court proceedings nationwide, though.

The director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) told Time that jury trials will not return to normal schedules until 2022 at the earliest. Subsequent spikes in COVID-19 cases, including the most recent spike from the Delta variant, have caused further closures or postponements.

According to the New York Law Journal, as of February 2021, there were 49,000 criminal court cases pending in New York City. The backlog of Florida’s legal system is mindboggling at over a million cases. Similarly, CalMatters states that in California, the state judicial branch administration reported that compared to the same period in 2019, only half as many cases were heard from March to August 2020.

This means 1.4 million cases were not heard. The percentage of the backlog is even worse in some counties. In Orange Country, for instance, more than 900 trials are usually held every year but only 150 trials were held from March to December 2020.

The Impact of Delayed Justice

Delays in court proceedings have a major impact on the lives of the people involved. Many of those accused of crimes and detained felt compelled to plead guilty in exchange for release, with time spent in prison considered as time served. These are people who could otherwise prove themselves innocent in trials. Their fear of getting infected with COVID-19 within the prison system prompted them to give up their right to a speedy trial.

As a consequence, they will forever have a criminal record and this will affect many aspects of their lives, such as finding a job or getting a home mortgage. Most of these people have a high risk of developing a serious illness from the coronavirus due to their health conditions.

The Associated Press reports that in San Francisco, public defender Mano Raju sued the San Francisco Superior Court this September. He said he was doing so for accused people in jail who were denied their right to a jury trial within 60 days from arraignment. As of Aug 30, many of the 156 people in jail awaiting trial were already in detention for nine months or longer. Because of pandemic precautions, they are kept separated akin to being held in solitary confinement. There are also 388 other cases already past the 60-day requirement for trial.

On the other hand, delays in trials are frustrating for victims of crimes. Postponements can lead to the loss of witnesses who may die in the meantime or who may forget crucial details of the case. Victims may also die before they see justice. Other victims of delayed court action include victims of domestic abuse seeking restraining orders, people battling over child custody or child support, and people suing for medical malpractice, workplace safety, or product liability.

NPR reports that prosecutors plan to drop some cases they consider as low-level to decrease the load for trials. In Chicago, these include many criminal cases. The director of the Lewis and Clark Law School’s National Crime Victim Law Institute stated that crimes with human victims must not be deemed low level. She stated that this will send a message to the victims that they do not matter to the justice system. She maintained that victims of crime have both the moral and legal right for consultation before their case is dropped or prosecutors accept a plea bargain.

Remote Court Proceedings

study by Reuters shows that 93 percent of courts have pivoted to the use of certain methods of remote proceedings. For example, according to CalMatters, the Judicial Council in California implemented emergency rules that allowed state courts to hold remote hearings and depositions. A videoconference deposition court reporter still records the proceedings verbatim. These are very helpful in addressing the backlog of cases.

Virtual court proceedings put the poor at a great disadvantage, though, depriving them of access to justice. There is a charge for remote hearings that some people could not afford. Also, many do not have access to a computer or the internet and do not have enough money to pay for internet shops. When copies of restraining orders are sent to victims to sign, they may not afford to have a copy printed out.

The pandemic is a tragedy for everyone. It is evident that among its victims is the U.S. judicial system and everyone who needs justice.

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