The U.S. District Court of New Mexico will suspend all criminal and civil jury trials starting Monday until April 10, because of the danger presented to jurors, attorneys and court staff by the coronavirus outbreak.
Chief U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson issued the order late Friday after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency in the state.
All grand jury proceedings are also suspended, but federal law enforcement will be able to file criminal complaints in criminal cases.
Johnson said in his order that “numerous courts across the country, including the United States Supreme Court, have taken proactive measures to combat the spread of COVID19.”
One of the key issues facing the court is the ability to obtain an “adequate spectrum” of jurors and potential danger of exposing jurors, attorneys and court staff to the virus.
“The Court finds that the ends of justice served by ordering the continuances of all grand jury proceedings and criminal jury trials outweigh each defendant’s right to and the public’s interest in speedy indictment or trial,” Johnson wrote.
Time limits in criminal cases are suspended under the order.
Each judge will decide what non-jury hearings to schedule in criminal and civil cases but many of those cases can be delayed under the order.
So-called “Bench Trials” in which the judge hears the evidence instead of a jury will be allowed to proceed at the individual judge’s discretion, and the courts and its offices will remain open.
Johnson said in his order that the court has to balance the fair administration of justice while protecting public health with the goal of reducing the size of public gatherings.
Any attorney seeking an exception to the order must file a motion directly with Johnson.
Members of the public entering any of the federal courthouses in the state will also be screened for coronavirus starting Monday.
Court security officers will ask anyone entering the courthouses the following questions:
• Over the past two weeks have you developed flu-like symptoms such as a cough, a fever, or shortness of breath?
• Have you traveled outside the United States within the last 30 days?
• Have you been in contact with anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19?
Court security officers will deny entry to the courthouse to anyone refusing to answer or who answers “yes” to any of the three questions.
Court spectators may have to watch a live stream video of court proceedings in a separate room in situations where there are a large number of criminal defendants being arraigned or sentenced.
There are times when judges sentence as many as 90 defendants in one morning in immigration cases and the courtrooms are crowded with attorneys and security officers.
The arrangements for live streaming could also apply in civil cases – like class action lawsuits – when there are a large number of attorneys and clients present.
Johnson’s orders are posted on the court’s website, www.nmd.uscourts.gov.