‘Recognizably a Courtroom’: US Judiciary to Get a Virus-Minded Makeover

Plexiglas shields the courtroom witness stand in the Southern District of New York’s Daniel Moynihan Courthouse — part of a remodel with public health in mind for reopening the courthouse during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Complete an online survey before heading to federal court, listing any signs of contact, symptoms or infection with the coronavirus. Permission to enter, should you qualify, will come with a QR code. You’ll need that, plus a mask and hand sanitizer, to get inside. 

That is just the start of the elaborate protective measures that Manhattan Federal Court has been implementing to prepare for the post-lockdown era.

The Southern District of New York, which has two courts in Manhattan and two more further north along the Hudson Valley, has operated for the last three months with only a skeleton crew of essential personnel including the chief judge, the district executive and U.S. marshals.

Since the coronavirus pandemic was declared, most court proceedings have taken place remotely over video or telephone conferences, forcing judges to figure out how to technologically safeguard constitutional rights and classified information.

“We’ve dealt with emergencies,” Chief U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon said in a May interview through Skype for Business. “We’ve dealt with arraignments. We’ve dealt with this influx of compassionate-release motions and bail applications that we’ve never seen before.”

Over the same videoconferencing system used for many hearings, Judge McMahon and District Executive Edward Friedland described their plans for reopening. Neither would commit to a set date on a calendar, but they said their preparations have been ongoing for months. That has involved envisioning how to protect judges, juries, attorneys, defendants, spectators, U.S. marshals, staffers and visitors in the city considered the global epicenter of the pandemic.

Hiring a public health consultant, the Southern District already has radically reconfigured courtrooms, revamped security screening procedures and cordoned off witness stands with plexiglass.

Weeks after this video interview, Courthouse News glimpsed the rigor of this process firsthand during a half-hour, in-person tour of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse at 500 Pearl St.

Spread out several feet apart to ensure safe physical distancing, footstep decals mark the path for jurors in the Southern District of New York’s Daniel Moynihan Courthouse — part of a remodel with public health in mind for reopening the courthouse during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

On the line for security screening, footprints on the ground mark how visitors can physically distance while passing through metal detectors. All belongings must be wrapped in plastic, and no staffers touch what the visitors carry from outside the building. As usual, all cellphones, computers and electronics must be checked at the entrance, traded for a token that rubber-glove-wearing U.S. marshals sterilized after every use.

The jury assembly room, usually packed tightly to accommodate 300 people, has been thinned out to 60 to keep the candidates at least six feet apart.

“We’ve ordered plexiglass dividers both for the jury box and the deliberation rooms, so that 12 jurors can deliberate each in his or her own personal space,” Judge McMahon explained in the May interview.

On the 26th floor of the courthouse, one of the grandest courtrooms on the top floor of the building provides a dramatic view of these changes. Half of the wooden pews will be removed for the courtroom to spread out the jurors. Civil trials, which statutorily can proceed with as few as six jurors, will have an easier time accommodating the more limited seating space.

“Jurors are going to have to wear masks,” McMahon said. “Everyone is going to have to wear masks.”

In the Southern District of New York, Chief U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon has been at helm since 2016. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

The sole exception to this rule will be the witnesses, who will testify from a stand surrounded by plexiglass so that their facial expressions remain visible to the rest of the court.

Each participant in the proceedings is physically distanced: Attorneys communicate with their clients at the defense table via an intercom. The stenographer is perched safely away from the courtroom clerk. Instructions for spectators will be spelled out with markings that read: “Sit Here.” 

“It will look like a courtroom,” McMahon said. “It will be recognizably a courtroom, but it will look different.”

Depending on the size of the car, elevators have a maximum capacity of two or three people, with footprint markings on the ground to remind riders to respect each other’s personal space.

Beyond the physical orientation of the rooms of buildings, omnipresent and laminated signs provide additional reminders that the pandemic is still raging: “Face masks must be worn at all times while in the building,” “Hand sanitizer MUST be used upon entering the building,” and “Please practice social distancing.” Bathrooms have instructions for proper handwashing, with photographs of what dirty hands look like under a blacklight when scrubbed too quickly or without enough soap.

As the coronavirus battered each of the states differently, Judge McMahon emphasized in March that each U.S. District Court would tailor its closure plan differently. Reopening will be a more coordinated affair, prompting the Southern District of New York to collaborate with its sister courts across the river in New York’s Eastern District.

“We’ve invented something in our heads called the Southeastern District of New York,” McMahon quipped.

“We’d like to move in lockstep to the extent that we can,” she added later.

With chairs spread out several feet apart to ensure safe physical distancing, the jury assembly room in Southern District of New York’s Daniel Moynihan Courthouse now has a maximum capacity of 60 people — part of a remodel with public health in mind for reopening the courthouse during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

When the federal courts will reopen to the public is uncertain. New York State courts opened on Memorial Day to a rush of new complaints: 475 cases to be precise.

Last week, in a preliminary hearing over eviction suspensions during the pandemic, McMahon revealed that the Southern District is unlikely to reopen this month. New York City only began the first steps of loosening shutdown measures Monday.

In the eviction-related case, oral arguments are set for June 24 and will likely be conducted via telephone.

Federal courts meanwhile have been adapting to the challenges of conducting complex and international litigation in the era of social distancing. The prosecution of the Turkish state-run Halkbank for a record-breaking money laundering scheme faced repeated delays because the bank’s U.S.-based attorneys have been unable to travel to Turkey to meet their clients.

Attorneys for the 9/11 families have struggled to depose reluctant witnesses in Saudi Arabia via video.

Just as the Supreme Court arguments over C-SPAN meant public bloopers — like speculation over a flushing sound from a justice’s microphone — District Courts have had their share of humorous disruptions.

“The dogs have become little media stars and sometimes small children have become media stars,” McMahon joked.

That type of pleasant distraction might become a relic of the lockdown era: U.S. federal courts do not permit pets, except for service animals.

During a June 5 tour of the Daniel Moynihan Courthouse, the Southern District of New York displayed some posters it plans to display as part of a remodel with public health in mind for reopening the courthouse during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

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