Courts temporarily closed, new jury trials to be postponed

  • The Hampshire County Courthouse on Gothic Street in Northampton.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Northampton District Court. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/16/2020 3:42:13 PM

NORTHAMPTON — With growing concern about the spread of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., courts around the state are grappling with how to proceed.

Massachusetts Trial Courts are closed to the public on Monday and Tuesday in response to the pandemic and Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement that non-emergency state employees in the executive branch should not go to work Monday and Tuesday. Trial Courts include Superior Court, District Court, Juvenile Court, Housing Court, and Probate and Family Court, a spokesperson for the Supreme Judicial Court said in an email.

In addition, new jury trials in the state will be postponed until at least April 21 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Judicial Court announced Friday.

The situation is unprecedented, stressed Hampshire Superior Court Clerk Harry Jekanowski, Jr. “Other than a snow day or something weather-related, no, this is absolutely extraordinary,” he said. “This cloud looms, as we may be in for a long haul. We may be missing more days ahead depending on how this virus goes.”

Hampshire County Superior Court is set to open Wednesday, but that’s subject to change, Jekanowski said Monday morning.

“We’ll see what happens on Wednesday morning,” he said. “It’s tough to shut down a trial court because of the constitutional rights involved.”

Currently, Jekanowski said no trials in Hampshire Superior Court will be disrupted.

“We didn’t have a lot of matters scheduled anyway because we were keeping it light in anticipation of the Conley trial going forward,” he said. Late last month, a Hampshire Superior Court jury found Christopher Conley guilty of trying to kill his ill 7-year-old daughter.

Jekanowski continued, “Fortunately, we don’t have a lot of matters scheduled.” He said the court will try to do as much as possible through telephone and video conference and that it will not be processing passport applications until further notice.

In Eastern Hampshire District Court, located in Belchertown, there are no ongoing trials, but seven new trials were scheduled before April 21, said Scott Rathbun, assistant clerk-magistrate. “Very few” of those people are in custody, he said.

Although new jury trials are postponed until late next month, “it does not necessarily mean that people who have been summoned for jury service before April 21 are automatically canceled,” state Jury Commissioner Pamela J. Wood wrote in an email. “They are in standby status. There could be a special motion for a jury trial allowed, in which case we would bring people in.”

She added, “We will notify anyone who has given us an email address a few days to a week before their scheduled date, if they are canceled.”

Trial courts around the state are also taking steps to limit the amount of people who come in.

“Historically, approximately 40,000 people come into our 99 courthouses every day,” Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said in a statement released Saturday. “Our priority is to significantly reduce the number of people who come into our courts, especially in large group settings, by reducing the number of matters the court will hear and by increasing the number of matters that the court will resolve through video and telephone conferences.”

Schedules will be staggered and videoconferencing will be used, according the statement from the state Trial Court.

“Emergency matters, such as requests for restraining orders, harassment prevention orders, emergency petitions, and mental health proceedings, will proceed as normal,” the statement said.

On the federal level, U.S. District Courts in Massachusetts — the nearest of which is in Springfield — placed restrictions on who can enter the courthouse. People are not allowed in the courthouse if they have symptoms associated with COVID-19; have been asked to self-quarantine by a doctor, hospital or health agency; have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or exposed to anyone diagnosed; or have traveled in the past two weeks to countries for which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued particular levels of travel health notices.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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