The Right to a Speedy Trial Has Been Suspended in Louisiana Again

Source: “New Orleans – French Quarter: Louisiana Supreme Court Building” by wallyg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Louisiana Supreme Court issued an Order this week that will suspend speedy trial rules, halting all criminal and civil jury trials until March 1. The Order was inspired by a recent surge in the COVID-19 pandemic which has led to record case counts and death tolls. Last week, Louisiana had its second-highest number of COVID-19 deaths reported in a day

With this recent coronavirus surge in mind, the Louisiana Supreme Court believed it was wise to shut down jury trials. It has been found that it’s almost impossible to hold jury trials that actually meet COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

The Louisiana Supreme Court issued the Order, “in consideration of ongoing public health recommendations to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus and slowing the spread of the disease while balancing the need to protect the constitutional rights and public safety of the citizens of the state by maintaining access to Louisiana courts.” 

The Louisiana Supreme Court’s Order states that “No civil or criminal jury trial shall commence in any Louisiana state court before March 1, 2021. Civil and criminal jury trials that are in progress as of the date of this Order may continue to conclusion, in the discretion of the local court.”

The Louisiana Supreme Court reasoned that “Given the public health concerns and the necessity of taking action to slow the spread of the disease, the continuances occasioned by Section 1 of this Order serve the ends of justice and outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial.” 

Of course, while this decision will help stop the spread of COVID-19 in courtrooms, it will have negative repercussions for those with cases in the Louisiana justice system. Loyola University Law Professor Dane Ciolino commented that “As to criminal cases, this is going to cause people to sit in jail longer than they otherwise would. As to civil cases, cases that normally would settle as trial dates approach will not settle.”

Both prosecutors and defense lawyers have agreed with the Order, saying that they understand why the Supreme Court issued it, however, they also acknowledge that it will further tax the already backlogged criminal justice system in Louisiana. 

This is the second time that court proceedings have been stalled. Jury trials were suspended when the pandemic hit Louisiana hard in March, only starting up again in July. 

To keep some areas of the justice system moving, the Order stated that courts will be able to continue conducting in-person proceedings as long as they do not involve a trial by jury. For cases that involve a trial by jury, “courts may conduct in-person proceedings in a pre-trial and post-trial posture.” Grand jury proceedings may also continue. 

Courts are encouraged to continue all remote proceedings by all means that do not involve in-person contact and to “take measures to limit access to courtrooms and other spaces, with minimum physical contact, to practice social distancing and limit in-person court capacity to 50% of the total capacity, as determined by the State Fire Marshall, counting both the number of employees and members of the public present in the building at one time.”

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