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‘An unprecedented order in unprecedented times’ — SJC halts trials in state courts

The order by Mass.' high court means any proceeding already underway will end and be deemed a mistrial

Judge Mitchell Kaplan presided over a session at Suffolk County Superior Court in December.
Judge Mitchell Kaplan presided over a session at Suffolk County Superior Court in December.Faith Ninivaggi/Pool/BH

The Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday ordered a halt to all trials in state courthouses, saying courts would be closed effective Wednesday, except for emergencies.

The order by the state’s highest court means that any trial before a jury or a judge that was underway Tuesday will come to an end, a mistrial will be declared, and the case will be in hiatus until late April, when jury trials are tentatively scheduled to restart.

"Where a jury trial has commenced, the trial will end based on the manifest necessity arising from the pandemic and a new trial may commence after the public health emergency ends,'' the court said.

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The order is a first, according to Martin G. Weinberg, a Boston defense attorney who has practiced law for more than four decades.

"It’s an unprecedented order in unprecedented times,” said Weinberg, who mainly tries cases in federal court, where jury trials in Massachusetts have been postponed until late April.

It was not immediately known how many civil and criminal cases are affected statewide. Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s office said that only one trial was impacted.

Exempted are only those cases deemed to involve an emergency that can’t be resolved via a video or telephone conference, the high court said in a statement Tuesday.

“Entry into a courthouse for the purpose of an emergency in-person proceeding shall be limited to attorneys, parties, witnesses, and other necessary persons as determined by the trial judge, plus no more than three members of the news media,” the SJC wrote in the order sent to courthouses statewide.

Later Tuesday, the state’s trial courts each issued standing orders to clarify what is considered an emergency.

In Boston Municipal Court, “emergency matters” include applications for protective orders to stop abuse or harassment, some mental health hearings, arraignments for newly arrested suspects, and probation violations for people accused of a new crime, among others.

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Superior Courts remain open for “Mary Moe” petitions to authorize abortions, and their administrative office will accept the returns of wiretap warrants. Other matters may be selected on a case-by-case basis after consultations involving a judge, the court clerk, the parties involved in the case, courthouse security, and the Probation Department, if relevant.

Details can be found on the Trial Court website.

Susan B. Church, an attorney in Cambridge who handles immigration and criminal cases, expressed support for the order in an e-mail.

“I am grateful the courts are taking our health and safety and the health of the general community seriously,” Church wrote. “I hope that the courts extend the same concern for our incarcerated clients. I am shocked that the immigration courts continue to operate essentially business as usual in light of the extreme public safety risk.”

Church said she doesn’t have any upcoming state court trials but does have “a case that has been pending for years that was scheduled for an evidentiary hearing today that was postponed.”

Weinberg noted that the pandemic’s ripple effects aren’t limited to Massachusetts courts. Trials are delayed across the country, he said, and a New York jury had to resort to videoconferencing before rendering a verdict.

“This is not unique to Massachusetts,' Weinberg said, "and clearly at a time when people shouldn’t congregate, it’s a thoughtful and proactive way to try to moderate the health perils that are reflected” in the SJC order.

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Weinberg added that the “job of a juror is difficult enough without worrying about whether they’re going to contract a virus from the person sitting next to them.”

The SJC said courthouses must be shut even if defendants in criminal cases face unexpected delays in having their cases heard.

“The continuances occasioned by this Order serve the ends of justice and outweigh the best interests of the public and criminal defendants in a speedy trial,” the SJC said.

The SJC said defendants in criminal cases may ask for a bail review due to the change in court schedules. “In criminal cases, where appropriate, a defendant may ask the court for reconsideration of bail or conditions of release,” it wrote.

The changed operating rules apply to the Superior, Housing, Land, Probate and Family, District, Juvenile, and Boston Municipal Courts and will remain in effect until at least April 6.

“Clerk’s offices shall remain open to the public to accept pleadings and other documents in emergency matters only,” the high court said.

Now, the earliest date for a criminal or civil trial with a jury is April 21, the SJC said.

Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state public defender agency, said in a statement that his staff would continue fighting for the constitutional rights of clients.

“We are currently filing motions asking for certain people who are being held on bail to be released and we plan to demand that additional measures are taken to mitigate the spread of the virus in the correctional facilities,” Benedetti said. "These are concerning times, and news is coming in quickly, but I can tell you that every decision we make will be done with our clients’ health and due process rights in mind and the health and safety or our staff and private bar colleagues.”

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Travis Andersen of the Globe staff and correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.


John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.