Across the region, all kinds of criminal and civil cases — from traffic-ticket hearings to a trial stemming from former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into election interference — have been put on hold until the health crisis abates.
Jurors seemed skittish about sitting with others for hours in close quarters. People with no pressing business in courthouses were barred from entering in some places, while judges, lawyers and administrators conferred, trying to decide what is next.
Mary Ellen Barbera, the chief judge of Maryland’s Court of Appeals and the state’s top judicial official, ordered the postponement of “all civil and criminal jury trials in the Circuit Courts throughout the state” that were set to begin from Monday to April 3, and she told judges to schedule new dates. Maryland state courts will also be closed to the public for three weeks.
“This is going to delay every major case,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said. He said judges are mindful, though, that certain functions “can never stop,” including hearings for restraining orders, particularly in domestic cases, and bail hearings for suspects who are behind bars.
Because most criminal cases end in plea bargains, McCarthy noted, “Even without jury trials, you can still do about 95 percent of your criminal work.”
Otherwise, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) even announced that process-servers working for plaintiffs who are suing the state are barred indefinitely from delivering court papers to government officials in person. “A party may email a complaint and writ of summons or a subpoena,” Frosh said in a statement.
In the U.S. District Court in Washington, a Russian company charged with orchestrating a social media campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election had been scheduled to go on trial April 6. But covid-19 has intervened.
U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich told defense lawyers and prosecutors in a conference call that a delay of at least two months was probable for the trial of Concord Management and Consulting. The firm is owned by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a catering magnate and military contractor with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Friedrich cited a growing reluctance among potential jurors to serve amid increasingly dire reports about the pandemic, according to a transcript of the call.
“The jury office has been receiving a number of calls, particularly from older jurors, asking whether they have to show up,” the judge said. “This raises a few concerns — whether we can end up with a skewed jury pool, whether potentially there could be a number of no-shows when it comes time to convene.”
She also told the lawyers that she was worried that jurors would be “distracted and nervous about being in a closed room” with fellow panel members.
Defense attorney Eric A. Dubelier, of the Reed Smith firm, agreed with the trial delay, citing disruptions caused by Reed Smith’s shift to teleworking. He said it would be difficult for him and his colleagues to comply with a court order under which security-sensitive documents in the case can only be handled inside the firm’s offices.
“No Reed Smith lawyer anywhere in the world is allowed to go to their office,” he said.
Meanwhile, the federal courthouse in Washington — which includes the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — is open only to judges, staff members and people with official business before a court.
In D.C. Superior Court, officials said they will announce temporary procedures for legal proceedings starting Monday. The court will postpone “all non-urgent matters or conduct them telephonically” while suspending eviction and foreclosure hearings and keeping juror summonses to a minimum.
The court also plans to suspend jury trials until at least mid-April for defendants who are not jailed. Employees responsible for monitoring those defendants will be allowed to take part in hearings telephonically if judges approve.
In the federal court system’s Eastern District of Virginia — which includes courthouses in Alexandria, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News — officials announced that all trials and grand jury sessions will be postponed for the next month, except for two grand juries meeting in Alexandria.
“We consider our core mission to be that of public safety and we currently have a plan in place to continue serving that function,” said Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
“In certain instances, such as criminal jury trials, there may be a delay, but the remainder of our law enforcement function continues.”
The Richmond-based federal appeals court, which reviews cases from Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, said hearings set for oral arguments next week have been put off.
State courts in Alexandria and Arlington have not taken such steps, although lawyers said judges have been inclined to grant continuances in low-level matters.
Fairfax County Circuit Court announced the suspension of all civil jury trials for 30 days starting Friday. The parties can convert a jury trial to a bench trial.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said Friday that his office will “broadly agree” to delay traffic cases and misdemeanors, felony preliminary hearings, circuit court trials and pleas over the month to reduce the number of people who have to come to the courthouse.
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the chief prosecutor for Arlington and Falls Church, is moving to postpone “all non-urgent” cases of defendants who are not behind bars. For cases involving people who are jailed, “essential staff will remain available,” she said.
As for prisoners, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office has adopted numerous protocols to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak at the jail, spokeswoman Andrea Ceisler said.
During the intake process, prisoners are asked about any recent travel to five countries with severe outbreaks within the past two weeks. Deputies ask new prisoners if they are experiencing fevers or other symptoms of covid-19. Anyone suspected of having contracted the illness is given a face mask and kept isolated at the jail, Ceisler said.
The Alexandria jail has barred contact between prisoners and visitors, requiring them to converse through glass. The Virginia Department of Corrections, meanwhile, said it has suspended all visits at state prisons until further notice.
In Maryland, state courts will be staffed to handle emergency matters such as domestic violence petitions, bail reviews and search warrants.
McCarthy, the Montgomery County prosecutor, said his office has closed to walk-in visitors unless they call first, and he has encouraged his staff to work from home.
The county also has suspended its court-diversion program in which people arrested for minor offenses are given a chance to clear their records by performing voluntary community service, such as working on litter-removal crews.
“We’re not bringing a bunch of people together, putting them in the same van and taking them some place where they get out and walk around,” McCarthy said. “We are deferring that for now.”
Ann E. Marimow, Justin Jouvenal, Keith L. Alexander, Dan Morse and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.