By Dina Arevalo, Staff writer
In the wake of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, civil and criminal jury trials have been suspended in federal court until at least July 3.
The news came after the three federal judges who preside over the McAllen Division of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas jointly handed down a special order Monday.
“All jury trials (criminal and civil) scheduled to begin from this date through July 3, 2020, are continued, to a date to be reset by each presiding judge,” read the June 1 order handed down by U.S. District Judges Ricardo H. Hinojosa, Randy Crane and Micaela Alvarez.
“Due to the court’s reduced ability to obtain an adequate spectrum of jurors and due to the reduced availability of attorneys and court staff to be present in the courtrooms because of the public-health risks, the periods of the continuances implemented by this order are excluded under the Speedy Trial Act,” the order further read.
Normally, the Speedy Trial Act of 1974 ensures defendants can have their cases brought before a jury within 70 days of an indictment being filed against them, barring certain exceptions and provisions which allow for the speedy trial clock to be paused.
The federal court system has seen substantial slowdowns since the coronavirus pandemic began in the Rio Grande Valley in mid-March.
What started with a series of court proceedings being postponed soon evolved to the temporary suspension of the grand jury in late March, followed by the closing of the courthouse to the public beginning April 6.
Though the federal courthouse is still closed to the general public, it has remained open for those with official business, such as federal officers and employees, attorneys and defendants scheduled to appear in court, and select others.
Other members of the public — including victims, family members and the press — have been able to access court hearings by listening in telephonically.
Monday’s special order does not impact what hearings have been allowed to continue during the pandemic, including initial appearances, bond and detention hearings, arraignments, sentencing hearings, and certain civil proceedings.
Furthermore, holding such hearings, scheduling conferences and bench trials have been left to the “(j)udges in their individual discretion,” the order read. Too, judges may choose to decide some matters based on written pleadings alone.
“If any hearings are held, the use of telephone or video conferencing in these proceedings is encouraged when feasible, deemed appropriate by the presiding judge, and permitted by legal and technology constraints,” the order further read.
The special order also does not speak to the empaneling or seating of grand jurors, who serve in secret for up to 18 months and are comprised of panels of between 16 and 23 people.
The three district judges handed down an order on March 20 which temporarily suspended the grand jury “until May 6, 2020, or the date the grand jury reconvenes,” a copy of that order read.
The actions of the grand jury, too, are subject to the time constraints outlined in the Speedy Trial Act. They must decide whether evidence presented by prosecutors and witness testimony is enough to charge a person with a crime via an indictment.
However, prosecutors have only 30 days “from the date on which such an individual was arrested or served with a summons in connection with such charges” to present a case to a grand jury, according to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
The rules lay out a provision to extend that deadline by an additional 30 days if no grand jury is in session.
Reached for comment Tuesday about the March order regarding the grand jury, the court said, “The order no longer suspends the grand jury.”