Photo by Matt Davis.

The Orleans Public Defenders will cease all in-person appearances at New Orleans Municipal and Traffic court due to what they are calling an “ongoing outbreak of COVID-19” at the court, and after one of their own attorneys who appeared there “almost daily” tested positive. 

According to a Monday afternoon press release, the office was informed early last week — prior to the Thanksgiving holiday — that a court staff member had tested positive. Since then, one of their own attorneys also tested positive.

In a Monday interview, Chief Municipal Court Judge Sean Early said that it was one of his staff members who tested positive last Monday, and that he shut down his courtroom the next day. It will remain closed until Thursday of this week, he said, but the other six judges will continue to hold hearings in other courtrooms with a staggered schedule, as they have been doing since June.

Earlier this month, the New Orleans Criminal District Court closed down for 2 weeks due to a staff member testing positive for coronavirus. 

But Early said the Municipal Court judges decided that wasn’t necessary.

“We did discuss it,” he said. “And the majority said let’s open.”

Early also said that as far as he was aware there have not been any efforts by the court to track the people who had been in the building last week and might have been exposed. 

The press release said that the public defenders office has “urged Municipal Court to reduce physical presence in court in an effort to limit unnecessary spread of the virus.”

“We’re open, we’re dealing with the public,” Judge Early said. “We’ve put in protocols — everybody has to wear a mask, everybody’s temperature is taken when they come through the door. It’s amazing how many people are turned away because they actually have a fever.”

Currently videoconferencing is only available for defendants who are being held in custody. The rest must appear in person. Early said the court has gotten some funding to create a virtual court for other defendants, but it won’t likely begin until after the new year. 

With the public defenders not showing up at Municipal Court, he said that any case in which someone can’t afford an attorney will need to be continued. 

The City Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes cases in Municipal Court, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

In the press release, the public defenders office suggested that going to Municipal Court in-person to resolve mostly minor offenses was not worth the risk for anyone.

“As more is understood of the virus, it is clear contained, poorly ventilated indoor spaces filled with people called to resolve misdemeanor offenses is simply not the right course of action,” the release read. It also notes that the public defenders office remains “in contact with the Municipal Court judges and staff on appropriate alternatives that don’t cause further harm to our most vulnerable citizens.” 

Judge Early also acknowledged the potential risk of the environment for public defenders in particular. 

“With a public defender, you know, when they talk to the client in prison they can do it via Zoom, but there’s a lot of live bodies who they talk to who have a case in Municipal and Traffic Court,” he said. 

The attorney from the public defenders office who tested positive has begun a 14-day quarantine. 

This story has been updated with comments from Judge Sean Early.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...