Article byPosted Featured AuthorMarch 2020
The uncertainty of the coronavirus has left many scrambling, including our courts. Courts across the country have taken different approaches in the wake of efforts to combat the coronavirus. Many courts have suspended in-court proceedings and closed business operations to the public through administrative orders. Details vary with each jurisdiction, and many courts are amending their orders soon after they enter them as new information about the pandemic becomes available.
Several of Mississippi’s local, state, and federal courts have recently entered orders to explain how they are adjusting their court operations in response to the coronavirus. Nearly all have left often the possibility that the orders can be extended or modified. It is important for lawyers and members of the public to be aware of these court orders as courts continue to monitor the situation and seek to limit further transmission of the virus.
The Mississippi Supreme has entered three administrative orders in response to the coronavirus since March 13, the latest of which orders that “local courts remain open.” The Court’s administrative order of March 15 gives judges the discretion to control their dockets and postpone trials scheduled through May 15. It also requires parties, jurors, attorneys, and witnesses who have traveled to areas with confirmed coronavirus cases and those who are the primary caregivers for a vulnerable person who has been diagnosed with the virus to contact court clerks before coming to courthouses.
On March 19, the Mississippi Supreme Court issued an order to temporarily suspend the portion of Rule 1.8 of the Mississippi Rules of Criminal Procedure regarding the use of Interactive Audiovisual Devices in criminal proceedings. Rule 1.8(b)(3) requires defense counsel to be in the same location with a defendant during preliminary proceedings. The emergency administrative order temporarily suspends the part of the rule that requires an attorney to be physically present with the defendant, but it does not “suspend the requirement for defense counsel to participate in the proceeding.”
The Northern and Southern District Courts both entered orders on March 13. The Northern District Court’s order requires attorneys or parties to notify the Court and opposing counsel if they have reason to believe that a “party, attorney, witness, or other case participant scheduled to appear before the Court, or that has recently appeared before the Court, has been in contact within the past 14 days with someone who may be infected by COVID-19.”
Should such notice be given, parties must “promptly confer regarding the appropriate means to conduct the hearing, trial, or deposition,” and file a joint notice or motion identifying the concern, explaining the steps they have agreed upon to alleviate the concern, setting forth relief requested from the Court, and setting forth any disagreements.
The order further mandates that all in-person proceedings be continued or conducted by video or telephone conference and restricts public access to courthouses only when “absolutely necessary.”
The Southern District Court’s order was “effective immediately” on March 13 and lasts through March 31. It continues “all non-essential civil and criminal matters set for hearing or trial in any federal courthouse.” It defines as “essential” initial appearances, arraignments, detention hearings, and issues of warrants. It gives presiding judges sole discretion to determine whether other matters set during the period “are essential and should go forward, or whether they can be conducted by videoconference or telephone.
For matters deemed essential, and all bankruptcy proceedings, the order requires counsel to notify presiding judges or bankruptcy trustees if an attorney or other individuals the attorney plans to bring to the courthouse has certain risk factors outlined in the order. The Court leaves it up to presiding judges to determine whether proceedings should go forward if they receive such notice. The Southern District has authorized the United States Marshals Service and the Court Security Officers to screen visitors and prevent them from entering if they present a risk of contamination.
In accordance with the Northern District Court’s Standing Order, the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District has suspended all live docket calls and limited public access to the courthouse. The Court is currently investigating telephonic docket calls and will consider in-person hearings.
The Mississippi Workers Compensation Commission released a statement on March 13 that stated that their offices would not be open to the public starting on March 16 through April 1. The Commission is requiring individuals to mail or file settlements and holding hearings on the record through April 1. Further, “as much as reasonable,” the Commission is asking administrative hearings to be conducted telephonically or to take place in “Hearing Room C to provide ample distance between parties and Commission staff.”
Several local courts have also entered orders in response to the coronavirus, including Hinds County Circuit Court, Hinds and Rankin County Chancery Courts, and the Rankin County Youth Court.
Effective March 16, all civil and criminal matters scheduled for in-court appears in Hinds County Circuit Court are continued pending further order of the Court. The same is true for all grand jury proceedings. The order does not “affect or impede any judge’s consideration of civil and criminal motions that can be resolved by the Court without oral argument or in court appearances.” It also does not preclude any telephone conferences. The order is currently set to expire on April 3. The Hinds County and Justice Courts have entered similar orders.
The Circuit Courts of Rankin and Madison Counties have issued orders continuing all criminal cases set for trial on April 20. The orders also reset all deadlines for criminal cases that have been continued. Civil motions will still be heard as scheduled. No new summons will be issued for jurors to appear in Circuit Court prior to May 19.
The Hinds County Chancery Court has continued all matters set through March 31. For cases set between April 1 and May 15, judges will use their discretion with regard to their own dockets.
Rankin County Chancery Court has continued all matters set for hearing or trial through April 3.
The Rankin County Youth Court is conducting emergency shelter and/or detention hearing by telephone conferencing and restricting in person appearances to “only those parties who have been ordered by the Court to appear.” A memorandum from Judge Tom Broome states that, “Only authorized parties shall come to the courthouse and no other persons shall appear without receiving approval from court personnel.”
On March 19, the United States Supreme Court extended the deadline to file petitions for writ of certiorari to 150 days after the date of lower court judgments, orders denying discretionary review, or orders denying timely petitions for rehearing. The Court further ordered that motions for extensions of time pursuant to Rule 30.4 be ordinarily granted by the Clerk if the grounds for the application are difficulties related to COVID-19. Finally, the Court will allow the Clerk to entertain motions to delay distribution of a petition for writ of certiorari where the grounds are that the petitioner needs additional time to file a reply because of COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic is developing rapidly, and courts are doing their best to monitor and adjust to the ever-changing circumstances. The orders above are current at the time of the publishing of this article. Please consult court websites or call court clerks for updated information about court operations.