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Mass. courthouses expected to physically reopen this summer amid coronavirus; jury trials possible in September

Hampden County courthouse in Springfield.
Hampden County courthouse in Springfield.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File 2019

Massachusetts courthouses, which have been physically shuttered for the last two months amid the COVID-19 pandemic, are expected to reopen for in-person proceedings this summer, with jury trials possibly targeted for September if children can return to school, officials said Thursday.

The update on state courthouses, which have been hearing emergency matters and more routine proceedings such as arraignments remotely during the health crisis, came in a letter to members of the bar. It was signed by Ralph D. Gants, chief justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court; Mark V. Green, chief justice of the state Appeals Court; and Paula M. Carey, chief justice of the state Trial Court.

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“We anticipate that our courthouses will likely remain physically closed in June, but that the number and range of non-emergency matters adjudicated virtually in the Trial Court will continue to grow, such that the Trial Court will endeavor to handle most matters that do not require an in-person court appearance,” the justices wrote.

They said the physical reopening of courthouses could come in the summertime, with caveats.

“We expect that courthouses will physically reopen this summer, but only in stages and only for certain matters that require in-person appearances,” the letter said. “Even as courthouses reopen, we will still need to conduct most court business virtually to reduce the number of lawyers, litigants, and court personnel that come to the courthouse, so that those who must come can do so safely with the necessary social distancing.”

Jury trials, the justices wrote, could resume in the fall.

“We hope that, in September, if schools reopen, we will once again begin to conduct jury trials,” the letter said. “But the challenges of conducting jury trials with social distancing during a pandemic are formidable, and will require us to re-imagine how juries are empaneled, where they will sit during trial, and where they will deliberate so that jurors can both be safe and feel safe. We are hard at work trying to address those challenges, and it is premature to predict now what it will look like.”

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The justices stressed that all future plans are tentative and could vary depending on factors including data on new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, as well as Governor Charlie Baker’s orders regarding the state of emergency. Baker’s order shuttering nonessential businesses is currently scheduled to expire Monday, though officials have said repeatedly that the economy will reopen in phases.

Currently, the justices wrote, the SJC, Appeals Court, and Trial Court have been hearing and deciding matters virtually, relying on written submissions and telephone or video conference hearings. Prior to May 4, the letter said, the courts were focused mainly on emergency matters, but now every department is hearing more nonemergency matters when it’s practical to do so without in-person appearances.

Among the high-profile matters the courts have heard remotely is the matter concerning the release of certain prisoners from custody in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

The SJC ruled in early April that inmates awaiting trial — except those facing violent and other serious charges — may be released to help relieve the “crisis engendered by the COVID-19 epidemic.” But the SJC rejected pleas from a coalition of criminal defense lawyers and advocates who had sought the release of many more prisoners — including those who were already convicted. The court said it does not have the authority to change sentences after they have been imposed.

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The court, instead, urged the Massachusetts Parole Board to act more quickly to approve the release of inmates nearing the end of their sentences, or who have already been approved for parole but haven’t yet been released.

Statewide as of Wednesday, the virus had infected 80,497 people and claimed the lives of 5,315 residents, according to the state Department of Public Health, which updates the grim tally daily around 4 p.m.

Vernal Coleman and Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.