Regional Appeals Courts Differ in Responses to COVID-19

(CN) — As the number of coronavirus cases grows, so does the impact on courtrooms across the country. And with the recent link of 50 cases to one New York lawyer, that impact is starting to become more visible.

At circuit courts, which oversee large regions of the country, bringing lawyers from equally far reaches and holding hearings in small rooms often with older judges who fit the at-risk bill, the danger is starting to come into focus.

A sign taped to a doorway at the Sixth Circuit denying entry to those may have been exposed to the coronavirus. (CNS Photo/Kevin Koeninger)

Perhaps it’s most visible at the Sixth Circuit’s Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati, Ohio where as of Wednesday a notice was taped to courtroom doors barring entry for anyone with cold or flu symptoms, as well as those who have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19, or has traveled to countries where outbreaks have been prevalent.

Oral arguments were being heard there Wednesday as well as into next week, and while Ohio only has four reported cases, Kentucky has a cluster of 8 reported just across the Ohio River.

The Second Circuit, located in New York City, shares its building with the state’s federal court system which issued no-entry warnings for similar groups earlier in the week.

The Ninth Circuit, whose region includes one of the heaviest hit cities of Seattle, canceled all en banc hearings and all non-case related meetings scheduled for this week. According to an announcement posted on their website Monday, the court may cancel more events next week.

At Richmond, Virginia’s Fourth Circuit, Court Clerk Patricia Connor sent out notices Monday to nearly all cases dockets for hearings next week asking if lawyers were suffering from flu-like symptoms or had traveled to affected countries.

Responses from lawyers, also visible on dockets, feature detailed private health information as well as travel plans.

“I have no symptoms of any illness but am traveling this week to Manila via Tokyo’s Narita International Airport,” one lawyer wrote. “Please advise if any additional information would be helpful to the Court.”

Courthouse News is withholding the names of lawyers due to the private nature of the communications.

Another lawyer detailed “moderate cough accompanied by nasal and chest congestion,” however they clarified it could be linked with seasonal allergies. They too sought guidance from the court.

But another lawyer specifically asked to delay their hearing due to concerns over exposure.

“I have learned that I am at a heightened risk of respiratory problems if I contract COVID-19,” they wrote, noting they were self-isolating in line with medical recommendations, but were not confident in their ability to attend their hearing next week. They instead asked for a 60 to 90 day continuance.

While the Fourth Circuit Clerk has not responded to requests for comment, Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia, expressed concern for the requests for personal information being available to the public.

“There is no public health justification for conditioning court access with such a privacy-invasive measure, especially when other, less restrictive measures are available to protect the public health and ensure that critical government functions can continue,” she said in an email.

Some of the cases, including one filed by immigrants’ rights groups against President Donald Trump’s public charge rule which limits immigration for those who might need public assistance, were already rescheduled for later in the year.

Other courts with less busy dockets are still feeling things out.

“It’s a little early for us right now,” said Fifth Circuit Chief Deputy Clerk of the Court Thomas Plunkett in a phone interview, who noted they don’t have any oral arguments scheduled until April. “There may be more developments and we’ll make decisions as things progress.”

Based in New Orleans, Plunkett recalled times in the past when hearings had to be postponed due to hurricanes, but as for COVID-19 they are relying on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Administrative Office of the US Courts, or AO,  for guidance.

Plunkett said he’d receive updates about resources available if a crisis occurred from the agency, however a request sent for copies of that documentation were not returned.

AO Office of Public Affairs spokesperson Charles Hall said in an email they were indeed sending information. However, it was up to the individual circuit courts’ chief judges to decide how to react.

“We are not issuing directives at a national level,” he said in an email. “Rather, we have encouraged each court to be aware of CDC guidance, and work in consultation with local health authorities.”

Deborah Hunt, clerk of the Sixth Circuit, said they were similarly taking in info from other agencies and responding as needed.

“It’s the same as all the agencies, what they’re doing,” she said in a phone interview. “We’re beefing up our remote work capabilities.”

The Sixth Circuit is currently holding oral arguments this week with more scheduled for the next like the Fourth Circuit, however no such notice has gone out to appellees so far.

“It depends on a lot of factors,” Hunt said in a phone call. “Right now the court has not made decisions in regards to that.”

Hunt said the signs on courtroom doors were added later in the day Wednesday, though no one reported an inability to enter courtrooms.

In an emailed statement Attorney Advisor Kate Adams to the 11th Circuit Executive’s Office said they are currently reviewing “policies and procedures to respond to the coronavirus,” however specifics, including the use of signs or seeking information from lawyers, were not mentioned.

Michael Gans, clerk of court for the Eighth Circuit, spent most of Wednesday in meetings working to develop a plan for addressing the virus. He said judges were debating whether or not to alter their April session, but stressed the courtrooms are cleaned daily with sanitizer. Tours of the building for schools, held once a week, are also cancelled going forward.

“The only day in my more than 37 years we’ve postponed hearings was the day after 9/11,” he said.

Other lawyers are still aiming to attend court if the arguments are not canceled, even in the face of growing concern. While Maryland Governor Larry Hogan issued an out-of-state travel ban for state employees on Monday, a spokesperson for the state’s Attorney General’s office said they still planned to send an attorney up for their cased docketed for a week from today.

Requests for comment sent to the First, Third, Seventh and Tenth Circuit clerks were not returned by press time, though none of the courts, many of which have oral arguments scheduled in the coming weeks, have posted any information about COVID-19 on their websites.

Exit mobile version