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SJC eases pandemic restrictions on court proceedings and trials

The John Adams Courthouse, home to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.Lane Turner/GLOBE STAFF FILE

The state Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday issued two orders significantly easing restrictions on in-person court proceedings that have been in place during the pandemic, citing a “continued improving situation.”

In a statement, the SJC said the first order updates rules for people seeking entry to a courthouse and removes occupancy limits and distancing requirements in the buildings. Everyone will be required to continue to wear masks, however, even if they have been fully vaccinated.

The second order, the statement said, lets courts begin conducting business much as they did before the health crisis. Under terms of that order, courthouses will be open for in-person sessions, though certain proceedings may still be held virtually, the statement said.

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The order removes pandemic-related limitations on jury trials including where and how they’re conducted, except for the mask requirement, the statement said.

Courts will continue to work through the backlog of jury trials caused by the pandemic, with certain Superior and Housing Court cases that normally go before 12-person juries still tried before six-person panels, subject to limitations on the number of peremptory challenges.

Officials, the statement said, will continue to prioritize jury trials involving people who are in custody, and the pause on speedy trial deadlines will expire Oct. 1.

“We are truly encouraged by the progress in the Commonwealth with respect to COVID-19, and hope it will continue and allow courts to gradually return to normal,” said SJC Chief Justice Kimberly Budd in the statement. “At the same time, we hope to take some of the lessons learned during the pandemic and apply them going forward, particularly when it comes to conducting certain proceedings virtually.”

The statement also said that due to juror notice requirements, jurors won’t be available for trials at some courthouses until Sept. 7. A list of courthouses and the dates officials will be able to start bringing in jury pools is available online at https://www.mass.gov/info-details/covid-19-jury-information.

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Each Trial Court department will keep posting notices to the court system’s COVID-19 webpage at https://www.mass.gov/resource/court-system-response-to-covid-19 explaining how the departments are addressing “various categories” of legal matters, whether in person or virtually.

The Globe reported in March that with many courthouses lacking adequate space or ventilation to meet coronavirus guidelines, court officials were scrambling to find locations where trials could be held safely, with space for social distancing taking priority.

The courts suspended jury trials last year to help slow the spread of the virus. In January, the state’s highest court allowed them to be resumed on a limited basis, with six-member juries presiding over short and fairly simple criminal and civil cases at nine courthouses.

Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.


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