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Delays, continuances, and cancellations: Here’s how COVID-19 is affecting local courts

“Every individual, business, and public agency has a duty to help flatten the curve of this pandemic’s growth. Criminal justice agencies are no exception."

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff file

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Both the Massachusetts and New Hampshire superior courts have mandated court proceedings be postponed into April as officials hope to stem the spread of COVID-19 in New England.

On Friday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court handed down two orders, effective immediately, including one that pushes back all empanelments in jury trials, in both criminal and civil jury cases, until at least April 21, according to a press release.

In a separate order, the court mandated that individuals who have symptoms of or had exposure to the coronavirus “may not enter a courthouse or other state court facility, including probation offices, until the SJC determines that it is safe to remove the restrictions,” according to the release.


“We are taking these measures to balance the need to protect the health of court personnel, those who visit our courthouses, and the general public, while attempting to continue court operations to the extent practicable,” Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants said in a statement. “This is a rapidly changing situation and we are prepared to take further steps as needed.”

The orders came as state agencies and local institutions, from sports leagues to schools and museums, continued to adjust to the rising health concerns spurred by the global pandemic.

According to the Massachusetts SJC, the instructions will not apply to cases in which a jury “has already been empaneled or where a jury has been selected for empanelment; such cases shall proceed through verdict.”

“In addition, no new grand juries will be empaneled before April 21, 2020, and grand juries whose terms expire on or before April 21, 2020 will be extended until that date,” the statement says. “In exceptional circumstances, a criminal defendant may seek an exception to the order postponing jury trials.”

In New Hampshire, starting Friday, all criminal and civil jury trials that were scheduled in the state’s superior courts over the following 30 days — until April 13 — have been rescheduled, Chief Justice Tina L. Nadeau said in a statement.


Those who were called should not appear for jury service, officials said.

“If you have a report date on Tuesday April 14, 2020, or after please check the New Hampshire Judicial Branch website for any updates prior to reporting,” the statement released Thursday says. “If you are a plaintiff, defendant or the State in any trial scheduled for that period, your trial will be rescheduled and you will receive notice of the new trial date.”

According to the statement, officials will review whether the 30-day period will be extended “on an ongoing basis with notice provided to all parties if extended.”

“For the well-being of the public and our staff, the Judicial Branch closely monitors the guidance provided by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the statement reads. “We continue to work every day to make sure the courts are accessible and safe.”

Suffolk County, Mass.

On Thursday, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’ office announced its in-office staff would be reduced to “‘skeleton’ or essential levels” starting Monday.

“The District Attorney remains acutely aware of her responsibility to keep all of the residents of Suffolk County safe and this staffing decision will in no way compromise that obligation,” the office said.


Additionally, all prosecutors are slated to request a 60-day continuance in cases where a defendant charged in a crime is not in custody and a 30-day delay “in the empanelment of the next scheduled sitting of the Special Grand Jury.”

Prosecutors in cases where the defendant is in pre-trial custody will work with defense attorneys to decide if a court appearance is required, according to officials.

“We will do so without compromise to any and all due process rights,” the statement says.

Both the Suffolk County House of Correction and the Massachusetts Department of Correction are suspending visitation, although Rollins’ office said officials will work to make sure attorneys and families can remain in contact with people in custody.

As of Friday, 26 people in Suffolk County had tested positive for COVID-19.

“Every individual, business, and public agency has a duty to help flatten the curve of this pandemic’s growth. Criminal justice agencies are no exception,” Rollins said in a statement. “The temporary new policies we are implementing will help protect the health of our employees, their families, our victims and witnesses, individuals charged with crimes, and all who come in contact with our courts and the Criminal Justice System.”

Middlesex County, Mass.

Starting Monday, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan’s office will reduce in-office staff levels where possible as well, a spokesperson said in an email Friday afternoon.

Sixty cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in the county.

“Recognizing our obligation to protect our employees, their families, and the general public, we are taking seriously the guidance of the CDC that suggests that event cancellations, social distancing, and the creation of employee plans to work remotely, very seriously,” the email said. “To that end we will minimize the number of employees who are physically required to be present in both the office and at court and will not be scheduling any new public events at this time. We will continue to fulfill all the obligations of our core mission to protect public safety, safeguard due process rights of defendants, and ensure that victims of crime receive justice.”


Essex County, Mass.

In Essex County, where two cases of COVID-19 had been reported as of Friday, District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office has made hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes available to staff and instituted other changes, such as cancelling unnecessary meetings and events and all work-related, out-of-state travel, according to a spokesperson.

“This is a fluid, unprecedented situation,” the spokesperson said in an email Friday. “Essex District Attorney Blodgett is committed to ensuring the safety of his staff while also upholding his duty to protect the public’s safety.”

Berkshire County, Mass.

As of Friday, nine coronavirus cases had been recorded in Berkshire County — the only county in the state that has seen community transmission of the virus.

In a press release, District Attorney Andrea Harrington’s office said it has “implemented internal protocols limiting interaction between staff members and with non-staff members in order to protect employees, prevent the spread of illness in the community and ensure that our entire staff does not become subjected to quarantine.”

The office will be closed to all non-staff members and all necessary meetings will be held by teleconference or at outside locations, officials said.

The district attorney’s office will file motions “to continue all pre-trial matters,” and all assistant district attorneys “will be available to handle arraignments, warrants, dangerousness hearings, and other immediate needs in order to protect the public and ensure due process rights,” the office said.

“District Attorney Andrea Harrington is working with local and state law enforcement to ensure law and order while limiting opportunities for the virus to spread,” the release said.


The Cape and Islands

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe told Boston.com Friday his office will follow the instruction from the SJC, but it remains busy.

So far, no coronavirus cases have been reported on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, or Nantucket.

“I don’t expect that to last forever, and we will, as I said, be fluid and responsive to whatever situation happens in our area,” O’Keefe said. “For now, we’re going to continue to work. We have plenty to do.”


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