Tanzina Vega: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, courts across the country have been closed to in-person hearings and jury trials forcing them to do these digitally or just postpone them. That's caused a massive backlog in cases throughout the United States, with cities like New York and San Diego, sitting on thousands of unheard criminal cases. Immigration hearings, child support orders, custody battles, marriages, and even arraignments for lesser crimes have also been delayed or postponed, leaving many Americans wondering when their legal affairs will finally get sorted.
Today, we're going to begin a series of conversations about how COVID-19 has affected our national courts, and we're calling it Justice Delayed. My first guest in this series is Lyle Moran, a legal affairs writer for the American Bar Association Journal.
Lyle, welcome to the show.
Lyle Moran: Hi, thanks for having me.
Tanzina: How bad are the backlogs?
Lyle: Well, out here in San Diego, for example, you have a backlog of roughly 20,000 criminal cases. That's about 2,700 that have been set for trial, another roughly 8,000 to 10,000 in the pre-trial phase. Then you have 7,000 defendants awaiting arraignment. Here in San Diego, next month, they're going to start up in-person jury trials, again, starting with just a couple at a time. At that pace, this is going to take years for this backlog to be worked through. You have other courts facing similar backlogs. It's just going to be a while before these cases can get heard.
Tanzina: For those who aren't familiar, I've covered arraignment courts here in New York City, they pretty much move very quickly. You see multiple folks coming in and out of arraignment courts. Often, sometimes, within a matter of minutes, the judge has already made a decision. With this backlog, Lyle, what's happening to the folks who are waiting?
Lyle: There's obviously folks in a few different types of situation. For those charged with very serious crimes, especially violent crimes, some of them may be awaiting these hearings, arraignments, pre-trial in the like, still in custody, and especially at a time with COVID going on, there's many that have sought relief from custody, given the prisons, the jails, they're obviously areas where a spread has happened, and folks are in tight quarters. That's a concern to those being charged, as well as defense lawyers. You have that.
You also just have the issue where it took courts a while to get up to speed with being able to hold video-conferenced hearings. Of course, you have some of those taking place. I just recently spoke with a judge in Louisiana, in Jefferson Parish, who has set up a system where he's able to accept guilty pleas via video conference, or at least those defendants who want to take that route, they're able to have their pleas accepted and get some sort of resolution rather than waiting and having this unknown play out for a while.
Tanzina: Are these backlogs happening across the country in different places, Lyle?
Lyle: They are. It very much depends on how quickly a court was able to switch to using some of this technology to be able to start holding hearings again. Criminal cases have obviously been prioritized over civil. Civil matters, which are already in many states, took a very long time, years often to get to trial, those have been put off even further just because you have many more constitutional rights in play in the criminal cases.
Out here in San Diego, there was actually a group of local civil lawyers that came together and got some retired judges on board to set up a system where those folks who wanted to have a retired judge or a qualified local attorney hear their civil matters, could go and do so for free. The idea was a program like this would help reduce the backlog when the courts already have civil matters pretty much in abeyance for a while.
Tanzina: Lyle, what about some of the other things we mentioned at the top, because if you're saying civil cases are really being put on hold here, what about people who are trying to get married, or people who are fighting for custody, or people who are trying to get a divorce?
Lyle: It's a great question. Clearly, during COVID, there have been a number of different types of child custody issues that have arisen. You have parents who have very different views about how the COVID-19 should be managed, how seriously to take the health issues in play. There have been concerns if one parent has to transport a child to another parent who's living in an area where COVID may be spreading more rapidly, do they want to do that? I've been told that family courts, in general, are seeing that pandemic itself is not reason enough alone to halt sharing custody or providing visitation to the other parent.
The Texas Supreme Court even put out an order pretty early on saying that child possession schedules, as they call them, were not to be impacted by COVID-19, and I saw that in Wisconsin, the stay-at-home orders, they are made clear that travel to transport children pursuant to a custody agreement, that type of travel was exempted. In large part, even though parents may have a different view about what type of precautions to take during this time, child custody sharing is supposed to continue.
Tanzina: Well, and if they're trying to go to court to amend any of that, that's what could take a while, right?
Lyle: Exactly. The parties would need to agree to arrangements on their own and then have the court sign off, but to have the court try and decide on its own, that could take a very long time.
Tanzina: Lyle, we got about a minute left, but you mentioned that how long the backlog is in San Diego. Are some cases just going to take years and years? Are people potentially going to give up?
Lyle: I think you may actually see a lot more folks try and reach settlements because they're just not getting the resolution that they want. They're certainly already in the criminal justice system. You have a lot of plea deals taking place, and we'll probably see even more of those.
Tanzina: Lyle Moran is the legal affairs writer from the American Bar Association Journal. Don't forget, we'll be covering more of this on our series, Justice Delayed.
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