Courtrooms throughout central Alabama either continue to be closed (Montgomery County, Federal Middle District Courts) or have recently announced closure (As of this week, Elmore, Autauga and Chilton County Courts have closed.) Even those courtrooms that are ostensibly open for business are currently severely limited in what kind of matters they can handle during the COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously jury trials (and Grand Jury hearings) are suspended indefinitely as there is no safe way to achieve social distancing requirements for jurors and others in the courtroom. Other types of hearings are going forward but the slow pace is still creating a backlog of cases that will, in our opinion, take years to resolve once things start moving again.
Interestingly, any Municipal courts within the Circuit Court’s jurisdiction are bound by a Presiding Judge’s order of closure. This means that cases in Montgomery, Wetumpka, Prattville and Millbrook Municipal Courts will be closed until the Presiding Circuit Judge’s order of closure is lifted.
The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles continues to hold “hearings” but is not allowing live or virtual testimony or presentation of evidence. At the present time applicants must submit materials in support of their position and wait for the result to be announced. We have written previously in this space about the inadequacy of this process and continue to call on this Board to allow virtual hearings for those that request them. After all, a hearing on a Pardon application or Parole request are vitally important to the people involved and these applicants deserve to have their say.
It is unclear at this time what criteria will be required before normal operations will be allowed to resume. The Montgomery County Presiding Circuit Judge has said that he wants to see two weeks of declining infection rates before he will consider reopening the courthouse. Obviously we are nowhere near that threshold at the time of this post, as infection rates in our area continue to climb at an ever-increasing pace. As for the remaining courts, our feeling is that normal, in-person operations will not resume anytime in the short to medium term.
We are all in uncharted waters here, and we must show patience with our courts. They are learning as they go just like the rest of us. However, in our opinion the technology exists to handle many types of matters via video or audio conference. This will allow our clients to have their cases moved along while at the same time helping to alleviate the backlog of cases that have the potential to crush the system when it gets up to full speed once again.