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The Courts and COVID-19



March 30, 2020
The spread of the respiratory disease COVID- 19 has prompted far-reaching responses affecting many
areas of American life. As Americans strive to practice social distancing to limit the spread of the novel
coronavirus that causes the disease, the United States federal courts have implemented various measures
designed to protect litigants, jurors, court personnel, and members of the public, and to reduce the
obstacles to litigation arising from the pandemic. As this Sidebar discusses in more detail, the courts
generally possess significant discretion to modify their procedures in response to the COVID- 19
pandemic, but there are some areas where further changes would require congressional action.

Federal Court Actions to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19

The federal courts have taken a variety of approaches to mitigating the risks of COVID- 19. At the trial
court level, for example, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York announced on
March 13, 2020, that it would postpone new civil and criminal jury trials. While the court allowed
existing grand jury proceedings and jury trials already in progress to continue, it encouraged the use of
telephone or video conferencing for hearings and status conferences. Likewise, on March 17, 2020, the
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington postponed civil and criminal hearings and trials
requiring oral argument. Judges in that court may still conduct proceedings by telephone and video
conference when possible, or resolve motions that do not require oral argument. Overall, as of March 18,
2020, according to the American Bar Association, more than 25 district courts had suspended jur, trials.
In addition, many courts have restricted access to court buildings, with some allowing entry only by
people with official business before the court and others liniting access by individuals believed to pose a
higher risk of COVID- 19 transmission. While many district courts appear to have proactively initiated
these changes, courts in at least four districts have closed after court personnel or individuals practicing
before the court were diagnosed with COVID- 19.
At the appellate level, a majority of the U.S Courts of Appeals have also taken steps to respond to the
COVID-19 pandemic. For example, on March 13, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit,
which serves states including California and Washington that have seen many cases of COVID -19, issued
an order restnicting public access to several courthouses within the circuit during weeks when court is not
in session, encouraging litigants to submit filings electronically or by mail, and directing individuals
filing in person to use a drop box rather than delivering materials directly to the clerk's office. The same
day, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (D.C. Circuit) restricted access to the courthouse to
court employees, members of the media, and individuals with official business before the court. In
                                                                   Congressional Research Service
                                                                   https://crsreports.congress.gov
                                                                                        LSB10437

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