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Fair Courts E-Lert: Courts Mobilize to Address the Covid-19 Global Health Crisis

This Fair Courts E-Lert highlights how courts are responding to the Covid-19 public health crisis, how such changes are raising concerns for access to justice, and more.

Last Updated: April 3, 2020
Published: July 15, 2021

Courts Mobil­ize to Address the Covid-19 Global Health Crisis

Courts across the coun­try are quickly adapt­ing formal policies to address the Covid-19 public health crisis. The Bren­nan Center put together this resource compil­ing court orders and offi­cial announce­ments from federal and state courts across the coun­try.

As of April 2, the 94 federal district courts and 13 circuit courts of appeals have respon­ded indi­vidu­ally to the crisis, with policies ranging from carry­ing on busi­ness as usual, restrict­ing court­house access for those with possible Covid-19 expos­ure, and suspend­ing all jury trials and other in-person proceed­ings. At the state level, courts have simil­arly respon­ded to the crisis, with 33 states restrict­ing or suspend­ing most in-person proceed­ings, and 14 states giving the option for local juris­dic­tions to imple­ment such meas­ures, accord­ing to the National Center for State Courts.

Members of the legal community have raised concerns that the changes being imple­men­ted as a result of the pandemic could have long stand­ing consequences for the coun­try’s court system. “We’re going to have to completely rethink how much has to be done in person, how much can be done using tech­no­logy … Our oper­a­tions will never be the same,” said Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht to ABC News.

Court Changes due to Covid-19 Raise Concerns for Access to Justice

Changes to court oper­a­tions due to Covid-19 are rais­ing concerns about access to justice for people involved with the crim­inal justice system. Accord­ing to USA Today, some of these changes include the delay of jury trials, court­houses either completely ceas­ing in-person oper­a­tions or clos­ing to the public, and judges being instruc­ted to only prior­it­ize urgent cases, with only some hold­ing those proceed­ings remotely.

With courts moving to virtual proceed­ings, concerns about the lack of mean­ing­ful public access to the courts during the crisis have also been raised. In New Orleans, for example, Court Watch NOLA (a group that monit­ors crim­inal court proceed­ings to ensure account­ab­il­ity) sent a letter urging the New Orleans Crim­inal District Court judge to provide “mean­ing­ful access” to all proceed­ings held by video­con­fer­ence, writ­ing it is “consti­tu­tional and right, espe­cially during these crit­ical times.” And in Minnesota, an indi­vidual facing assault charges filed a lawsuit chal­len­ging the state’s Supreme Court’s order limit­ing access to court proceed­ings, arguing the order viol­ates his consti­tu­tional right to a public trial.

Lawyers, Judges and Advoc­ates Call for Immig­ra­tion Courts to be Shut Down Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic

Immig­ra­tion lawyers, judges and advoc­ates are call­ing for the clos­ure of immig­ra­tion courts to prevent the further spread of Covid-19. Currently, the major­ity of the coun­try’s 68 immig­ra­tion courts are open in some capa­city, though all hear­ings except for those involving detained indi­vidu­als are post­poned accord­ing to the Depart­ment of Justice.

Accord­ing to the Asso­ci­ated Press, Immig­ra­tion and Customs Enforce­ment (ICE) has instruc­ted immig­ra­tion lawyers to bring their own masks and gloves to protect them­selves. Iimmig­ra­tion courts in New York, New Jersey and Color­ado have been closed tempor­ar­ily after suspec­ted Covid-19 infec­tions, and some judges have even refused to appear in court. 

On March 27, six nonprofit groups filed an emer­gency motion for a tempor­ary restrain­ing order to shut down all immig­ra­tion courts for the dura­tion of the crisis. The next day, a federal judge in a separ­ate case issued a nation­wide tempor­ary restrain­ing order requir­ing the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to release all detained immig­rant minors to protect them from Covid-19.

Carla Wong McMil­lian Appoin­ted to Geor­gia Supreme Court

On March 27, Governor Brian Kemp appoin­ted Judge Carla Wong McMil­lian to the Geor­gia Supreme Court, making her the first Asian Amer­ican and the second woman of color to sit on the state’s highest court after Leah Ward Sears, who stepped down in 2009.

McMil­lian’s appoint­ment brings the total number of states with one or fewer women on their high court from 15 to 14 accord­ing to data from the Bren­nan Center. She will replace Robert Benham, the state’s first Black justice, who retired on March 1.

Prior to McMil­lian’s appoint­ment to the Geor­gia Supreme Court, she served on the Geor­gia Court of Appeals, where she was the first Asian Amer­ican to be appoin­ted to a Geor­gia appel­late court and later became the first Asian Amer­ican elec­ted to statewide office in Geor­gia when she retained her seat.

The same day that Gov. Kemp appoin­ted MacMil­lian, he also filled two vacan­cies on the Geor­gia Court of Appeals with the appoint­ments of Judge Verda Colvin and Judge John Pipkin III.