Arizona Supreme Court Orders Limitation on In-Person Contact Throughout Arizona’s Court System
On Monday, the Arizona Supreme Court issued a sweeping administrative order affecting the working of Arizona courts in light of “concern for the spread of COVID-19 in the general population.”
Among the dramatic actions taken by Chief Justice Robert Brutinel, who signed the directive on behalf the Arizona Supreme Court, is an order that all courts in Arizona should avoid in-person proceedings “to the greatest extent possible consistent with core constitutional rights.”
The Supreme Court’s order leaves it to the presiding judge of each county’s superior court to determine the best means to limit in-person court proceedings. The Chief Justice suggested the use of available technologies such as teleconferencing, videoconferencing, email, and text messages to effectuate these goals. And to the extent that any existing court procedural rules prohibit such technological means of communication, the Court directed that any such rules should be suspended effective immediately.
While the order stated that Arizona’s court still remain open for business, the Chief Justice contemplated the possibility of court closures throughout the state of Arizona. If that eventuality were to occur, the Supreme Court directed that Arizona courts should remain accessible to the public by phone and email.
Arizona Supreme Court Clarifies Chain of Succession Amidst Pandemic
On the same day, the Supreme Court ominously issued a second order, describing the succession to the position of Vice Chief Justice in the event that he or she is “unable to perform the duties of office due to death or incapacitation.” The order noted that “extraordinary situations may arise during which both the Chief Justice and Vice Chief Justice are unavailable due to incapacitation or death.”
As of this writing, the current number of Coronavirus cases in Arizona stands at 20 and there is certainly no indication that any of the Arizona Supreme Court justices have the disease. However, it is hard not to read this order in the context of the overall Coronavirus pandemic as being a precautionary step to clarify the judicial chain of succession in the event that COVID-19 hits the Supreme Court.
Maricopa County Courts Cancels Jury Duty for March
Meanwhile, Maricopa County Superior Court, which for the past two days has only been canceling jury duty on a day-by-day basis, announced that it will be suspending jury selection for the rest of March. In a March 16th letter, the Maricopa County Superior Court stated that all courts in Maricopa County would halt new juror selection and that all persons who have been summoned to appear for jury duty in the next two weeks have fulfilled their service and are not subject to another summons for 18 months.
This announcement did not apply to jurors that had already been selected and are currently impaneled on an active trial.
The Superior Court has suspended Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 8, related to Speedy Trials through March 30, 2020, and confirmed that no new jury trial would be started during this time.
Consistent with the Arizona Supreme Court’s order, the Superior Court also announced that it would be taking measures to provide for remote participation in court proceedings whenever possible. The County made no blanket announcement regarding how remote participation would be practiced but advised lawyers to check with the judge assigned to their case.
If you are a defendant on a case currently within the jurisdiction of the Maricopa County Superior Court, check with your criminal defense attorney regarding what procedures you may need to follow to avoid an in-court appearance for the month of March.
Scottsdale Municipal Court and Phoenix Municipal Court Extends Jury Duty Suspension
Phoenix Municipal Court also appears to be following the lead of Maricopa County. While the Phoenix City Court had been suspending jury duty on a day-to-day basis, their website now indicates that jury duty will be suspended for the rest of March.
Pima County Superior Court Cancels Jury Duty But Lacks Decisive Steps in Reducing In-Person Contact
Meanwhile, in Tucson, the Pima County Superior Court has also suspended jury selection through March 31.
The Pima County Courts response, however, appears to be less decisive than the measures taken by Maricopa County this week. While courts in Phoenix courts have indicated that remote participation would be the norm in cases whenever possible, Pima County has merely stated that “if remote participation is desired, Counsel should contact the judge’s chambers.”
This discretionary attitude towards teleconferencing for court hearings seems misguided. It is in the interest of the public and the judges that remote participation in court proceedings should not be left up to the judgment of each particular lawyer on a case-by-case basis. The lenient standard also seems not to be in step with the spirit of the Arizona Supreme Court’s administrative order suggesting the use of telecommunication for court appearances whenever possible.
See our previous posts on the Impact of COVID-19 on the Legal System Here