By Tom Hals and Caroline Spiezio
(Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic has begun to impact the U.S. court system, halting civil and criminal jury trials in high-profile venues such as Manhattan’s federal court and delaying a $1 billion trial against Elon Musk that was slated to begin Monday.
The postponements are raising questions about how courts will protect criminal defendants’ rights to a speedy trial, clear a backlog of hundreds of thousands of asylum cases and resolve high-profile corporate disputes.
“It’s all happening at the speed of light,” said Eric Tennen, a criminal defense lawyer in Massachusetts. “It’s just crazy. I don’t know what’s what anymore.”
Courts are taking piecemeal approaches to addressing the spread of the virus.
Federal and state courts from Massachusetts to Washington have postponed trials and grand jury proceedings or banned visitors from countries with large outbreaks.
New York state’s court system on Friday announced it would suspend new jury trials, though trials in progress will continue.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday said that it was restricting visitors “out of concern for the health and safety” of its employees.
A union representing federal immigration judges, who have a huge backlog of cases, on Thursday asked the Trump administration to suspend all mass scheduling hearings, which can draw hundreds of people from around the world to their courts daily.
“This is exactly the type of situation the White House, (Centers for Disease Control) and other public health authorities urge us to avoid,” the judges union said in a letter to Justice Department.
The immigration judges said they would continue to hear cases involving people in detention.
Matthew Galluzzo, a criminal defense lawyer in Manhattan, said he expected lawyers to seek bail for some clients if the situation dragged on.
“A defendant has a right to speedy trial and we don’t like the idea of someone waiting for their day in court,” Galluzzo said. “Thirty days in one thing but when it becomes 60 or 90 that’s something else,” he said.
Organizations that represent defendants in New York have called for the release of prisoners who are older, pregnant or have respiratory conditions, and an end to detaining defendants for administrative reasons, such as missed court dates.
The outbreak is also impacting corporate litigation.
A $1 billion non-jury trial over Tesla chief executive Elon Musk’s purchase of SolarCity that was slated to begin in Delaware on Monday was postponed indefinitely.
“While I certainly would not characterize this trial, or any other trial, as ‘non-essential,’ it is not expedited and no irreparable harm will flow from an adjournment,” wrote Delaware Vice Chancellor Joseph Slights.
In Long Island, New York, a jury trial over billions of dollars of claims stemming from the opioid epidemic against drug companies including McKesson Corp, Johnson & Johnson and CVS Health Corp has been postponed.
Removing looming trial dates could ease pressure on parties to settle.
“One of the reasons matters resolve is because of deadlines. Deadlines foster settlement talks,” said Florida lawyer Michael Elkins.
(This story corrects eighth paragraph to show the request was made by a union representing federal immigration judges and that the union was seeking a postponement of mass scheduling hearings, not all hearings)
(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Caroline Spiezio; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Cynthia Osterman)