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A Federal District Court in Ohio Delays All Trials Because of Coronavirus

Judicial responses to the pandemic have varied and are changing rapidly.

A courtroom at the Potter Stewart U.S. courthouse in Cincinnati, Ohio.(Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all federal criminal and civil cases scheduled for jury trial in the Southern District of Ohio are delayed for 30 days, though case-by-case exceptions can be made, according to a general order by Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley. All grand jury proceedings are also delayed “except those that are 30-day cases or are necessary to protect the safety of the community,” wrote Marbley. The order became effective Thursday.

“The ends of justice served by ordering the continuances outweigh the best interests of the public and the defendant’s right to a speedy trial,” wrote Marbley. The court will vacate or amend the order no later than April 13. 

Earlier this week, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency. So far, five people in the state have been diagnosed with COVID-19, but officials with the state health department said Thursday that they estimate more than 100,000 are carrying the virus. That same day, the state banned gatherings of 100 people or more, with several exceptions such as airports, libraries, medical facilities, and train stations. 

Deborah Williams, federal public defender for the southern district of Ohio, told The Appeal that the order was necessary to protect the health of attorneys and their clients. 

“Across society everybody is really recognizing what a huge threat to public health this is,” said Williams. “The courts are very concerned about how to balance the public health threat against our clients’ right to get into court, rights to speedy trial and, of course, there’s the right to public trials.”

Judicial responses to the pandemic have varied and are changing rapidly. As of March 9, the Southern District of New York implemented a ban on visitors who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 or had contact with someone who has been diagnosed; those who had visited China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, or Iran within the last 14 days; and those who had been asked to self-quarantine. In western Washington state, all federal criminal or civil matters that require in-person hearings are suspended until March 31, according to a report on Effective Thursday, jury duty for new trials has been suspended in New Jersey’s Essex County courthouse. 

“While jury trials are a critical component of our justice system, this extraordinary step is necessary to protect the health and safety of the community,” New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said in a statement. “At the same time, we will make every effort to keep our court system running in the face of this health crisis.” 

But despite changes to courtroom protocols and delayed trials, people are still being sent to and held in jails, where viruses can spread quickly. To stem transmission, public health experts have recommended social distancing and avoiding large gatherings. But inside jails, hundreds, if not thousands, of people are often forced to live in close quarters in unsanitary conditions. 

“People will be living in dormitories with rows of beds next to each other so people are breathing in the same air,” said Maria Morris, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “They’re coughing onto the surfaces that other people are touching, so just because it is sustained, close contact, it’s very easy for illness to spread.”

Activists and attorneys from across the country, including San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin and Public Defender Manohar Raju, have advocated for reducing the number of new admissions and releasing as many people as possible, particularly older residents and those with underlying health conditions. 

“The ones in custody, they’re already a very exposed and vulnerable population,” said Williams, the Ohio federal defender. “Once a virus such as this hits the jail, it’s just going to explode.”