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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.