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Federal Criminal Trials Up 15 Percent Last Year Amid COVID-19

The number of federal criminal cases increased by about one percent last year as COVID-19 disruptions continue to affect the federal court system, court administrators said in an annual report. The criminal case total has dropped 20 percent over the last decade, reports Courthouse News Service. “Federal courts resumed some operations when COVID declined, but social distancing requirements and other safety measures created challenges for staging proceedings, including trials,” the federal report said. Many federal courts suspended and resumed in-person hearings in conjunction with COVID-19 caseloads. While expanded teleconferencing allowed some hearings to be held remotely, many grand and petit juries were suspended.

“Suspending jury trials is a very, very serious business under the Constitution,” said Arthur Hellman, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Hellman hopes courts can devise a safe way to seat juries in the case of another infectious disease, but recognized the challenges of doing so. “This a very large and ancient body of law, about how your jury trials should be conducted, and in particular, that you have the jurors in the room together with nobody else, and they're not communicating with anybody else during the trial,” Hellman said. “That particular dynamic is really impossible to replicate electronically.” Despite the challenges, there were 15 percent more criminal trials last year than the year before.


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