With the first jury trial in over 16 months set to take place on Tuesday, two court sections in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, along with Magistrate Court, have moved to virtual hearings due to recent COVID-19 infections among lawyers and court staff.
Judge Kimya Holmes moved her proceedings to virtual until further notice, according to Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik. On Thursday, after this story was published, a clerk for Holmes told The Lens that in-person proceedings are scheduled to resume in Holmes’ courtroom on Tuesday, Aug. 10.
And a notice posted on the court website said that all sections of Magistrate Court “will operate remotely through Monday, August 2, 2021.” Judge Nandi Campbell is allowing public defenders to appear virtually in her court room, and limiting the number of people allowed inside. In addition, the drug testing lab located in the courthouse is also closed after a COVID exposure, according to Kazik.
Jury trials were officially set to begin again on July 6 after being put on hold in March 2020 at the outset of the pandemic. But thus far, none have taken place. One was scheduled for Monday, July 26, in front of Judge Angel Harris, but was delayed until August 3 after prosecutors requested a continuance. It is unclear whether or not that trial will go forward as planned given the recent developments.
Kazik said that he was planning to speak to the judges Wednesday afternoon to make a determination on how they would proceed. *
Meanwhile, after one of their staff members tested positive, the Orleans Public Defenders Office is pushing for all court proceedings to go virtual, citing a recent surge in cases due to the highly infectious COVID-19 delta variant. Such a move would mean once again putting the pause on jury trials for an undetermined length of time.
“We have asked that all court proceedings move virtually until the surge subsides, uniform mask and distancing directives among court sections, and explicit public instructions for how the public is to proceed with necessary court interactions,” spokesperson Lindsey Hortenstine said in a statement.
On Tuesday evening, Sierra Thompson, the deputy chief of trials for the public defenders, wrote a letter to Criminal District Court judges and Kazik informing them of the staff infection and resulting quarantines.
“As a result of this and other Covid-19 exposures, a substantial percentage of the Orleans Public Defenders’ staff must now quarantine, in order to protect the health and safety of our clients, our other staff members, the many people who work and appear in Criminal District Court, and our community at large,” Thompson wrote. “Our office policy on quarantining is based on city guidelines and recommendations, as well as individual consultation with public health experts and officials. Attorneys who are in quarantine will appear for court via video or will arrange for someone to stand in for them.”
District Attorney Jason Williams said in a statement that the office is working on coming up with a plan that would allow jury trials to continue even if the court reduces the number of people who are showing up in person for proceedings.
“We have been closely monitoring local, state and national COVID case rates and safety guidelines, and have reinstituted numerous precautions across our three offices to keep our employees and visitors safe,” Williams said. “Additionally, we are working to propose plans to the courts to keep dockets moving and jury trials happening, even in a hybrid scenario, in the event of a continued rise in cases that force courts to institute capacity limits.”
The office instituted new guidelines for its staff on Wednesday, mandating masks, social distancing, and temperature checks for individuals who work in person.
While guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not require vaccinated individuals to quarantine after exposure, Hortenstine said that the public defenders office has “maintained quarantine protocols” given the “many at-risk and vulnerable clients” its staff members work with.
The DA’s office is mandating a 14-day quarantine for unvaccinated individuals who have been exposed to the virus, along with contact tracing procedures and testing after 5 days. Vaccinated staff are instructed to monitor their symptoms if they are exposed. All staff are encouraged to get vaccinated.
Court closures and the suspension of jury trials since the start of the pandemic have resulted in a massive backlog of cases at Criminal District Court. Earlier this year there were over 4,500 open cases. In March, court hearings were suspended for a week as the public defenders office and DA’s office attempted to resolve as many of those cases as they could.
But in the statement, Hortenstine said that safety comes first.
“Throughout the pandemic, OPD’s priority has been the health and safety of our staff, our clients, and our community,” Hortenstine said. “As the delta variant and infections surge across New Orleans and Louisiana, this remains our top priority.”
Kazik said that anyone who enters the courthouse is required to wear a mask, and that some court staff were working remotely to reduce the number of people in the building.
“So we are taking steps to make the building as safe as possible,” Kazik said. “Obviously, we still have a function to provide to the citizens of New Orleans.”
This story was updated to include the date on which Judge Kimya Holmes’ courtroom is scheduled to return to in-person proceedings.
*Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the drug lab at the courthouse closed due to a staff member testing positive for COVID-19. It was closed because staff were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The story also incorrectly reported that Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik would discuss how to proceed with Judge Angel Harris. In fact, he said he would discuss how to proceed with all the judges. Finally, Kazik had initially told The Lens that Judge Nandi Campbell had moved her courtroom proceedings to all virtual. He later clarified that she was only allowing public defenders to appear virtually. (July 28, 2021)