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Courts ask Congress for coronavirus response funds

The judicial branch asked Congress for $7 million in additional funding this fiscal year

The judicial branch has asked Congress for $7 million in additional funding this fiscal year to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the federal courts deal with a disruption to operations that it estimates could last three months.

The federal courts want funds to ensure the information technology department can give judges enough bandwidth to accommodate an increase in remote work, U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan, chairwoman of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference, told reporters Tuesday.

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Also, about $4.5 million of the request would go for mental health and drug treatment programs for criminal defendants on probation or pre-trial services, because of the social distancing measures needed to prevent the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“Those treatments usually occur in a group, it’s going to be more costly to provide it individually,” Eagan said.

The courts also asked for an increase for federal public defenders so they can work remotely to represent clients without disruption.

The new request to Congress comes as the federal courts grapple with wider effects of the novel coronavirus. Each of the nation’s district and appeals courts have responded in their own way.

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The Western District of Washington was the first to close the courthouse and suspend trials and hearings and others have done likewise, while federal courts in West Virginia have not taken any action, Eagan said.

The Judicial Conference, the policymaking body of the federal courts, met Tuesday over the telephone instead of their usual in-person meeting at the Supreme Court, which is closed to the public until further notice.

No judges or courts employees have tested positive for COVID-19, Eagan said, but lawyers in civil and criminal cases have asked for a pause in their proceedings.

“I’m trying to do it on a day-to-day basis, case-by-case basis, as to whether or not I should risk bringing people in the courthouse,” said Eagan, a judge in the Northern District of Oklahoma.

Judges have tried to remain flexible if there’s an emergency, but there are also requirements for grand juries and speedy trials in criminal cases to deal with.

Some prospective jurors called last week and asked not to show up to the courthouse for jury service because of the virus, which is particularly dangerous for older people.

“We’re going to have difficulties going forward, if this gets more drastic, in terms of getting jurors who are across the spectrum of ages for a jury panel,” Eagan said.

Judges are going to retain flexibility to do what they have to do to address cases with immediate concerns such as political cases, Eagan said, with teleconferencing as a possibility.

But that solution raises questions about how the public or news reporters would be able to observe what’s happening in courtrooms that are generally supposed to be open.

“Right now, there is no way other than coming to the courtroom,” Eagan said. “And so one of the things we’re going to have to look at is whether we need to have — I don’t know how we could do this in the middle of crisis because we’re not set up for audio streaming right now — but we’re going to have to look at our options for those courts that are not set up for that.”

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