Massachusetts Reopening Plan: What About the Courts?

With the Governor’s May 18th announcement detailing the tentative reopening of the state, we see a plan that seeks to balance the safety of the people of Massachusetts and a return to the activities of daily life-- making a living, seeing family and enjoying time with friends. This is a relief to many citizens, and provides hope that we can once again live a life of a normalcy that many have missed.

However, for those with pending OUI cases, this reopening plan was distinctly lacking a key piece: What about the courts?

The Supreme Judicial Court released a letter on May 14th, preceding the Governor’s release of the state reopening plan, addressing the separate concerns that courthouses are still facing. The SJC is extremely mindful of the significance of courthouse closures and the effect it has had on all litigants, employees, and practitioners. With over 40,000 people visiting Massachusetts courthouses per day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the courts are put in a particularly vulnerable position in this public health crisis. The SJC is actively trying to balance the interests of justice of litigants and the safety of the public.

Because of the impact that COVID-19 has had on the court process, the courts have made great strides in its ability to conduct proceedings and handle filings virtually. With these new capabilities that have been put into place in only a couple short months, the SJC expects that the courts will continue to hear a wider range of non-emergency cases virtually, and will continue to do so long after the courthouses reopen.

With these new virtual capabilities expanding, the SJC does not tentatively foresee the courthouses physically reopening in the month of June. It does believe that the courthouses will physically reopen at some point in time this summer, again with limited proceedings and in stages so that those who must come into the courthouses can do so safely and with social distancing measures in place. While all SJC plans are currently tentative, it has provided the following information to date:

  • The courthouses are not expected to physically open for the month of June, but are expected to open at some point this summer;
  • The courthouses will implement a phased reopening anticipated for certain types of cases. The category of case has not been released;
  • Once phased reopening begins, the SJC encourages all court business that can be conducted virtually to be done so;
  • The SJC hopes that if schools reopen in the fall, that jury trials may resume with additional safety measures in place;
  • The SJC anticipates that the new normal of courthouse business will include lawyers, judges and clerks utilizing a virtual environment, embracing a more modern and efficient court structure that has emerged due to the pandemic.

We have and will continue to remain in touch with the courthouses and district attorney’s offices throughout the state, advocating for speedy resolutions to our clients’ cases. We know that this waiting period has been stressful. As the SJC writes,

“We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all that you have done, and will continue to do, as we not only keep the wheels of justice spinning but also work to create a better spinning wheel.”