With COVID-19 cases surging, the Supreme Judicial Court has hit pause on criminal and civil jury trials statewide through Jan. 31, affecting dozens of cases in Berkshire County.
The move follows a similar decision by the presiding justice of the county's busiest district courthouse, Central Berkshire District Court in Pittsfield, to suspend trials for the first week of the month.
The state Trial Court closed the courthouse temporarily last month amid an outbreak among courthouse employees. The courthouse was back open Monday for non-trial proceedings.
As a result of the new order, nearly 90 cases cases that were ready for trial in Berkshire County in January must be rescheduled, including 10 in Superior Court, according to District Attorney Andrea Harrington.
"While some of these cases would not have been reached for trial in January, many of them would have gone to trial," she said in an email. "My hope is that jury trials can return safely in February and that these matters will be tried as soon as possible."
In further attempts to limit the spread of the virus, the Supreme Judicial Court ordered courthouses to conduct hearings virtually when possible, and to have half of staffers — excluding security, facilities and Electronic Monitoring Program employees — working from home.
"Courts may continue to hold in-person proceedings in matters where a virtual proceeding is not practicable or would be inconsistent with the protection of constitutional rights," a statement from the Executive Office of the Trial Court said.
In addition, no new grand juries will be convened this month.
Courthouse doors will be open to members of the public.
The court acknowledged that yet another interruption of jury trials "will likely result in a further backlog" of cases.
The rise in COVID cases in the state "has once again put a major strain on the criminal legal system," said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which provides lawyers to defendants who cannot afford an attorney.
He said officials "are stuck in a terrible balancing act where we are trying to defend the due process rights of our clients while keeping everyone who uses our courts healthy during this horrible spike in cases."
"How can we be sure people are getting fair trials when the pandemic will likely affect the makeup of juries?" he said in a statement. "How can we zealously advocate for our clients when our attorneys, investigators and social workers could at any moment be sidelined with this virus?"
Describing jails and prisons as "hot spots for COVID-19," Benedetti implored the public to "remember that our clients are people with families," and asked trial courts to entertain emergency motions seeking the release of defendants who are vulnerable to the virus.
"The burden of the pandemic continues to weigh on them and their communities the most," he said.