On May 26, 2020, the Chief Judge of the Eastern District of Virginia issued General Order No. 2020-16 setting forth the “phased expansion of court operations.” This General Order represents the next step in the Court’s efforts to keep court proceedings going while observing restrictions necessary for public health and safety, and includes several steps.
First, effective June 11, 2020, in-person proceedings in the Eastern District of Virginia will no longer be strictly limited to “critical or emergency proceedings.” Proceedings such as civil and criminal bench trials, as well as misdemeanor, traffic, and petty offense proceedings will go forward in person, although precautions may be taken to reduce docket sizes to permit observance of social distancing requirements in the courthouse. At the same time, the General Order notes the recommendation of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in its Federal Judiciary COVID-19 Recovery Guidelines that judges “continu[e] to use video- and tele-conferencing to the greatest extent possible” for both civil proceedings and criminal proceedings authorized by the CARES Act. The Court also will continue to provide telephonic access to the public for in-person and for video- and tele-conferenced proceedings to further reduce the number of persons in the courthouse.
Second, the Court now requires that individuals who enter the courthouses in the District wear face coverings in all common areas of the courthouse and observe social distancing of at least six feet wherever possible. Further details on this requirement appeared in General Order 2020-14, which noted that any visitor seeking entry to a courthouse without a face covering will be denied entry by the security staff and will be asked to contact the office or chambers to be visited to determine alternative arrangements to accomplish the business needs of the visitor without entering the courthouse. The Court also addressed the needs for employees to conduct health self-assessments before coming to work in the courthouse, and encouraged courts to request that visitors to each courthouse likewise assess their health before entering a courthouse.
Third, the Court announced that “no criminal jury trials shall be conducted prior to July 7, 2020” because of the additional exposure risks that jury trials involved. The Court also stated that “[n]o civil jury trials shall be conducted until further notice” while the Court evaluates its capacity to conduct civil jury trials after recommencing the criminal jury trials that have been given priority.
In short, the Court is working hard to find a balance between its hard-won and well-earned reputation for pushing cases along quickly, while at the same time taking the steps necessary to protect public health and safety.
David Deitch leads the White Collar Defense and Corporate Compliance practice at Berenzweig Leonard. David is an experienced white collar trial lawyer who has tried more than 100 jury trials to verdict in federal and state courts around the nation. He can be reached at [email protected]