State high court halts trials, cinches down courthouses

Staff Writer
Published: 3/17/2020 7:20:49 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Except in emergency cases that cannot be resolved remotely, beginning Wednesday, all Massachusetts courthouses are closed to the public until at least April 6 over the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time the state Supreme Judicial Court announced the closure, it said in its order Tuesday that all ongoing jury trials will be declared mistrials because of the pandemic. It also said that all jury and bench trials scheduled to begin between Tuesday and April 17 have been continued to a date no earlier than April 21, with the exception of civil bench trials that parties and the court agree can be done remotely.

The court’s order stipulated that the only in-person cases heard in the state judicial system will be emergency matters unable to be resolved over videoconference or telephone, or if a hearing is “not practicable or because it would be inconsistent with the protection of constitutional rights.”

“Each Trial Court department shall determine what constitutes an emergency matter, recognizing that courts will necessarily be operating with skeletal staffs and that the public safety of court personnel, court users, and the general public is paramount,” the SJC order states.

The new rules go farther than an SJC order from Friday, which only postponed new jury trials until at least April 21. 

Clerk’s offices will remain open to accept pleadings and other documents in emergency matters, according to the order. Courthouse entry for emergency matters is limited to attorneys, parties, witnesses, “other necessary persons” and no more than three members of the news media, the order says.

Those who have had a proceeding postponed because of the order can apply for an exception or a conference with the court. A defendant may ask the court for reconsideration of bail or conditions of release “in criminal cases, where appropriate,” according to the order.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com. 

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