Federal courts prepare for possible coronavirus disruptions

Memo suggests courts ‘at a minimum’ coordinate ‘social distancing practices,’ like teleworking and staying home when sick

South Korean health workers check people for the coronavirus at a  drive-through clinic in Seoul on Thursday. (Jong Hyun Kim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
South Korean health workers check people for the coronavirus at a drive-through clinic in Seoul on Thursday. (Jong Hyun Kim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Posted February 28, 2020 at 9:58am

The nation’s federal courts should make sure they are prepared for a “potential pandemic” from the coronavirus respiratory illness, including procedures to “ensure the continuation of necessary court functions,” the judiciary’s administrative agency recommended in a memo Thursday.

The memo from James Duff, the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, went to all federal judges, along with clerks, staff, attorneys and chief probation officers and was marked as “important information.”

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The memo arrived with “posters for placing around facilities,” including Centers for Disease Control information on “What to do if you are sick with coronavirus disease 2019” and “STOP THE SPREAD OF GERMS: Help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases like COVID-19,” the illness caused by coronavirus.

The guidance came as the stock market dropped again and the Trump administration expanded its response to the potential for an outbreak of COVID-19 on American soil, as the virus that started in China had spread to Iran, Italy and other countries.

While some health officials have raised the possibility of schools and businesses being closed because of the virus, Duff’s memo highlights the potential disruption to a judicial system that handles criminal cases and civil disputes.

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Duff suggested that federal courts “at a minimum” coordinate with human resources about “social distancing practices,” such as “teleworking, staying home when sick, and separation of potentially ill staff from others within the workplace.”

The memo also urged courts to emphasize good respiratory etiquette and hand-washing practices and ensure routine, regular cleaning of all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace.

Courts should also be “implementing continuity procedures, issuance of applicable orders, and other measures as necessary to ensure the continuation of necessary court functions,” Duff’s memo states.

The Administrative Office said in a statement that the judiciary’s plan has “key mitigation tactics” such as more telework, substituting teleconferencing for face-to-face meetings, promoting three-foot separation between individuals and requiring personnel to stay at home at the first sign of symptoms.

The court system has essential functions and services. Defendants in criminal cases, for example, must be brought before a judge soon after their arrest. Other constitutional rights and federal statutes also mandate actions or deadlines for other parts of a criminal case.

The government shutdown in January 2019 demonstrated some of those priorities. The courts at that time operated under the Anti-Deficiency Act, which allows work to continue if it is necessary to support judicial powers.

The Justice Department and other executive branch attorneys at the time filed requests to delay civil cases across the nation, which resulted in some rescheduled hearing and filing dates. Criminal cases continued as scheduled.

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