Federal Judiciary Confronts Coronavirus Spread: Judicial Conference Acts on Court Administration Matters

Federal courts throughout the country are taking steps to balance the health and safety of employees, litigants, and the public with their Constitutional responsibility to keep the courts operating during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Many courts are asking their employees to work remotely and are posting on their internet site orders and notices that relate to jury service, filing deadlines, and other court business, as well as public access to the courthouse.

The latest step occurred today when the Judicial Conference of the United States, the Judiciary’s administrative policy-making body, convened by teleconference, allowing its regular scheduled biannual meeting to continue with Conference members calling from all 13 circuits. The Conference traditionally meets at the Supreme Court of the United States.

A month ago, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) organized a task force, which now includes representatives from the General Services Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the, Federal Protective Service, as well as judges and court officials, to share information and guidance related to the coronavirus outbreak as it relates to the Judiciary. The AO also is providing courts, probation and pretrial offices, and defender services organizations with operational, human resources, funding, and other support and guidance.

Courts are reviewing their continuity of operations plans and Pandemic/Infectious Disease plans to help them continue essential court operations. In-person court training has been cancelled through May 31, 2020. Video and audio-conferencing are continuing as practicable.

At the session, the Conference approved an amended Code of Conduct for employees who work in Federal Public Defender offices that, among other things, explicitly states that employees should not engage in sexual or other forms of harassment or retaliation for reporting such conduct. These changes mirror the improvements the Conference made to the Codes of Conduct for judges and court employees in March 2019.

As a result of the Conferences approval of the Defenders Code, all Codes of Conduct – for judges, court employees, and defender staff – now clearly and uniformly prohibit any workplace misconduct, including any form of harassment, as well as retaliation for reporting misconduct; and encourage reporting and disclosure of such misconduct.

Taking these together with other workplace conduct reforms that have been enacted, the Judiciary has taken action on all the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group’s more than 30 recommendations contained in its June 2018 report (pdf). These include the creation of a national Office of Judicial Integrity to provide counseling and assistance regarding workplace conduct issues, improved procedures for reporting and addressing misconduct, and additional training preventing harassment and misconduct.

In other action, the Conference authorized a two-year pilot to evaluate live audio streaming of motion hearings in select civil cases of public interest in a limited number of district courts. Audio streaming would be subject to the discretion of the presiding judge, require the consent of the parties, and be prohibited in hearings involving jurors, witnesses, or sealed, confidential, or classified materials. The Conference’s Court Administration and Case Management Committee will issue guidelines for the pilot.

At its meeting today, the Judicial Conference also affirmed that civics education is a core component of judicial service; endorsed regularly held conferences to share and promote best practices of civics education; and encouraged circuits to coordinate and promote education programs.

In his 2019 Year End Report on the Federal Judiciary, Chief Justice John. G. Roberts, Jr., stated that “civic education, like all education, is a continuing enterprise and conversation” and noted that “by virtue of their judicial responsibilities, judges are necessarily engaged in civics education.”

The first national civics outreach conference, held last fall at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, included judges and senior court staff from every circuit and provided an opportunity for attendees to share ideas and programs.     

The 26-member Judicial Conference is the policy-making body for the federal court system. By statute, the Chief Justice of the United States serves as its presiding officer and its members are the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographic circuits, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade. The Conference convenes twice a year to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the court system, and to make recommendations to Congress concerning legislation involving the Judicial Branch.