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U.S. Courts functioning amid the COVID-19 Crisis

U.S. Federal and State Courts are grappling with the delicate balance between keeping the courthouses open for business, while also ensuring the health and safety of courthouse staff, jurors, and the public is not jeopardized.  Judges and courthouse staff around the country are taking numerous measures to manage and respond to the pandemic. We briefly summarize the current status and procedures implemented at Courts in New York, Texas, and Florida as of April 15, 2020.

New York: In the Southern District of New York, activity in federal courthouses has been dramatically curtailed. Jury trials have been suspended until June 31, and courthouses are generally closed for all but essential matters. Electronic filing of new cases, pleadings, and other filings remain available via the Court Managed-Electronic Case Filing (cm-ECF) system. Judges have implemented telephonic and videoconference appearances to attempt to minimize case interruptions where possible. In addition, the U.S. Marshal Service and court clerks have adjusted the procedure for ex parte relief, to limit the necessity for in person meetings to obtain and serve the Orders, writs, and warrants in attachment and arrest cases.

In the New York state court system, the filing of new cases and the use of the electronic filing system for existing cases remains prohibited until further notice.  All Courts are continuing to allow for the filing of emergency applications. Starting April 13, 2020, Court proceedings for pending non-essential matters in New York State Courts will be heard virtually, with all interactions taking place by video (utilizing Skype and Zoom) or telephone. Courts in Kings County, New York County, and Bronx County will release protocols as electronic conferencing systems are implemented. New York state Chief Judge DiFiore has acknowledged and commended the Court staff’s ability to adapt to a “virtual court system” to “stop the spread of the virus and save lives.”

Texas: In Texas, all the federal courthouses in the Southern District of Texas are closed to the public until further notice. This includes courthouses in Corpus Christi, Victoria, Brownsville, Galveston, Laredo, McAllen and Houston. To ensure public safety, Chief Judge Rosenthal of the Southern District of Texas has ordered all civil and criminal jury trials previously scheduled to begin through May 31, 2020 are continued and will be rescheduled. The Southern District of Texas clerks’ offices are all operating with a skeleton crew, enough to keep up with the mail and criminal intake needs.  The Judges of the Southern District of Texas have already started holding conferences, hearings, and mediations via Zoom, and have even acknowledged the potential long-term use (and cost savings) of such technology even after things start to return to normal. In the Eastern District of Texas, the Beaumont Division is also closed to the public until further notice. In both the Southern District and Eastern District, the U.S. Marshal Service has confirmed their continued assistance with admiralty and maritime matters to attach/arrest vessels during COVID-19 and have made social distancing changes to procedures as well, including but not limited to, seizing vessels through service of the seizure order on the vessel’s agent to avoid unnecessary travel to/from foreign flagged vessels by the deputy marshals.

The Supreme Court of Texas has similarly encouraged Texas State Courts to modify deadlines and procedures as necessary to manage their docket. Notably, Texas has granted courts wide latitude to modify or suspend deadlines and procedures as needed. Civil statute of limitations have also been extended. The Harris County District Clerk is operating in a reduced capacity and monitoring a dropbox at the courthouse for those who lack e-filing capability and need to physically file court materials. Despite the physical closure of the courthouses, functionally the courts and clerks’ offices remain open for business and the state’s e-filing system permits filing of new cases, pleadings, and motions in all courts.

Florida: All federal courthouses in the Southern District of Florida remain open for business, albeit with minimum staffing levels. The clerk’s office, probation, and bankruptcy courts are also operating with reduced capacity. All jury trials have been continued until no earlier than July 6. Joining other districts across the country, Chief District Judge Michael Moore has encouraged the adoption of video and teleconferencing for court proceedings where practicable. All Florida state courthouses in Miami-Dade County are closed to the public except for essential matters. Florida’s federal and state courts all continue to accept new pleadings and filings electronically.

While it remains unclear how long these measures will be necessary, the legal system has proved itself capable of adapting to these unusual circumstances. We hope you and your loved ones continue to stay safe and healthy.

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