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Federal jury trials suspended in L.A. amid rapid COVID spread

The federal courthouse with overhead clouds reflected on its windows
The federal courthouse on 1st Street in downtown Los Angeles.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Federal jury trials in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Riverside have been suspended for at least three weeks due to the latest surge in COVID-19 cases.

Rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus led a panel of eight judges to order a halt to jury trials Monday in the three courthouses of the Central District of California.

Jury trials “would place court personnel, attorneys, parties, and prospective jurors at undue risk,” Clerk Kiry K. Gray said in a statement posted on the district court’s website. “Accordingly, a temporary suspension of jury trials is necessary to protect public health and safety, as well as ensure the continuous performance of essential functions and operations of the Court.”

Gray cited a recent increase in confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the district’s courthouses, but did not provide specifics.

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During the suspension, proceedings that don’t require a jury can be held, although some judges have reverted to holding hearings remotely through video or telephone.

The suspension is a setback for the court’s drive to clear a backlog of cases that built up during a complete shutdown of jury trials for the first 14 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Central District spans the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. With nearly 20 million residents, it is America’s most populous federal court district.

In the year before the pandemic, 131 jury trials took place in the district’s courthouses.

Prosecution of alleged drug dealers, tax cheats and cyberthieves is disrupted by halt to federal jury trials in L.A. and six neighboring counties.

Since the courthouses began reopening in May, judges have tried to prevent overcrowding of jurors.

At the main courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, trials have been limited to no more than two per week, judges have tried to ensure that they take place on different floors, and jurors have deliberated in empty courtrooms where they can keep some distance between each other.

A week before jury trials are set to resume Jan. 24, the district’s eight-judge executive committee will meet to decide whether to extend the suspension, the Chief District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez said in a telephone interview.

“We’ll see how the next two weeks go, and hopefully we’ll resume jury trials sooner rather than later,” he said.


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