COVID-19 has had a major impact on various aspects of our society, including business and education. The pandemic has also affected the U.S. judicial system, resulting in courthouse closures and delays in legal proceedings. Consequently, the backlog of cases has increased in many areas.
COVID-19 Caused Courthouse Closings Nationwide
COVID-19 has resulted in widespread courthouse closings since March 2020. Prosecutors have continued to file charges based on criminal investigations, but for many victims who still wait for justice, that is where their cases come to a screeching halt. Most cases cannot be resolved due to the pandemic, and there is a backlog of cases that is already insurmountable in some circuit court systems.
Time Delays Have Created a Domino Effect in the Judicial System
With COVID-19 lockdowns in place, first appearance, pre-trial hearings, grand jury proceedings, and jury trials have been delayed. It is not only the defendants, lawyers, and judges who cannot proceed with normal criminal investigative procedures. Eyewitnesses, expert witnesses, and victims will not have their subpoenas delivered in a timely manner and may be required to either postpone depositions or participate in videoconferencing.
Fortunately, there are some proceedings, such as plea deals, that judges are still able to preside over in a virtual courtroom. Bailiffs have had to adjust to these new settings and be creative in order to follow through with their duties. In some courthouses where they hold virtual hearings and defendants are required to be fingerprinted in open court, a portable fingerprint station must be used.
The Backlog of Cases in Florida Courtrooms
The justice system in all states critically impacted by COVID-19 do not see any end in sight to the case backlog. For example, the Polk County Circuit Court in Bartow, Florida, filed 2,500 new felony cases between March and June of 2020.
During the pandemic, prosecutors in Polk County had six first-degree murder cases set for trial and many others in the last phase before a trial date is set. The circuit court already had a pending felony case load of over 4,000 before COVID-19 caused closures. To make matters worse, misdemeanor cases have already topped over 6,000 as of May of this year.
COVID-19 Has Also Impacted New York Courtrooms
Trials and grand jury proceedings in New York are on hold, which has caused the backlog of criminal cases to increase by a third since February. As of June 2020, the number of criminal cases awaiting resolution had reached a shocking 39,200.
Judges have been conducting virtual hearings for the past few months, but they have recently moved from presiding over hearings at home to conducting business remotely from their chambers. This tactic has helped to speed up the judicial system process, but has also caused unexpected problems. For example, because lawyers are not present in an actual courtroom with defendants, lawyers do not have the close interaction they normally have with their clients, leaving those clients more vulnerable to making self-incriminating statements.
The Effect of COVID-19 on the Right to a Speedy Trial
The impact on timely investigations and prosecutions is so grave that the Department of Justice has requested Congress “pause the statute of limitations for criminal investigations and civil proceedings.” The Sixth Amendment right for a speedy trial is being handled differently, depending on the length of courthouse closings, but it will likely result in blackout dates or exclusions covering the months COVID-19 resulted in courthouse closures.
The issue of “right to counsel” is much more complicated and must be handled on a case-to-case basis, due to social distancing policies in jails, prisons, and government buildings. It is highly likely that courts will see future complaints regarding ineffective counsel due to communication issues.
COVID-19 Has Also Caused Judicial System Revenue and Job Losses
Courthouses supplement their day-to-day operational costs with funding collected from fines, fees, and circuit court costs. Due to COVID-19, these incoming funds have diminished significantly.
The coronavirus pandemic has also impacted judicial system employee jobs around the country. Many courthouses have suffered recent budget cuts and now they are dealing with a loss of revenue due to COVID-19, so workers have been laid off or furloughed.
Courthouses like the Polk County Circuit Court in Bartow, Florida, have done what they can to save jobs by having employees limit hours and work remotely. Many Polk County court employees have been able to retain their employment, but 20 employees were laid off, 200 were furloughed, and 21 positions were frozen or eliminated.
What Does the Future Hold for the Judicial System?
The judicial system cannot wait for COVID-19 to disappear before it gets back to work. Plans are already in the works to install plexiglass dividers between jurors as well as between podiums where lawyers make their case and defendants wait their fate. The use of facial masks as well as the vigilant sterilization of facilities will be ongoing, and attendance at trials will be limited. As courthouses cautiously reopen during this COVID-19 pandemic, we will learn valuable lessons for future challenges.
About the Author: Dr. Dena Weiss is an associate professor at American Military University, teaching courses in criminal justice and forensic science. She recently retired after working 24 years as a crime scene investigator and fingerprint examiner for a central Florida police department. Prior to that position, she was a serologist for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Her court experience includes testifying in more than 200 federal and circuit court cases in over 15 Florida counties.
Dr. Weiss is also an active member of the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System (FEMORS). Her educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Sociology and a master’s degree in Forensic Science from Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a Ph.D. in Business Administration with an emphasis in Criminal Justice.