We are currently experiencing an apocalypse. No, not the end-of-the-world kind that is frequently the subject of sci-fi movies, even if it feels like it at times. Rather, we are experiencing an apocalypse in its original sense. The word apocalypse come from the Greek “apo” (un) and “kaluptein” (to cover). Thus, apocalypse originally meant to uncover or reveal. The COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it, quite simply is uncovering many things about our society, some of which we were vaguely aware and some we were oblivious to. Many pixels have already been used by others to talk about class differences, health-care access, race, and attitudes toward people with disabilities that have been revealed or amplified by the stay-home orders and social distancing necessary to slow the spread of the virus. My focus is what this apocalypse reveals about our courts in Connecticut.
In January, we heard news reports of a virus in China that caused the lockdown of Wuhan. It was one of those stories that happens to other people in distant lands, not in the Land of Steady Habits. Fast forward to March, when things began to get real here, at least in Connecticut. On March 10, Governor Ned Lamont issued an executive order directed at the courts that essentially suspended all statutory deadlines such as statutes limitations, service of process, arraignments, speedy trials, etc. This order precipitated a series of notices from the Judicial Branch that issued on nearly a daily basis.
Initially, jury trials were suspended and court business to “Priority 1 Business Functions” cases, which generally included arraignments, juvenile matters, and domestic violence matters. Then the law libraries were closed, and Grievance Committee and Sentence Review hearings were postponed. Next, courthouses began to be closed, Supreme Court arguments were canceled, executions, foreclosures, and pretrials were suspended or postponed, and case management orders were suspended. Then appellate deadlines were suspended and the April term for Appellate Court arguments was put off. Now, court hours are limited to about half the day and only those involved in restraining order, civil protection order, ex parte custody hearing, or arraignments permitted to enter trial courts. Oh, and the bar exam scheduled for July has been postponed until sometime in the fall.
The obvious take away is that protecting the vulnerable, that is to say victims of domestic violence, the young in need of immediate protection, and those who may be unduly deprived of their liberty is of utmost importance. This is as it should be. But it also reveals that much of what we do in the law, at least on the civil side, involves money in some respect. In family cases, the dispute often concerns property and support orders. In personal injury, it is the value of the claim and who should pay. Foreclosure and eviction stem from the failure of the homeowner or renter to pay. In crude terms, the courts have elevated personal safety over money, which, in my view, is as it should be.
The Judicial Branch’s priorities offer guidance to law firms in addressing this unprecedented situation. When Governor Lamont issued his stay home order, he exempted essential businesses, which includes legal services. To be sure, criminal defense lawyers handling arraignments and lawyers handling restraining orders, civil protection orders, and emergency custody proceedings are essential to the personal safety and liberty of the individuals involved. Beyond those obvious examples, lawyers who handle landlord-tenant cases, employment lawyers, and others addressing the immediate needs that arise in this crisis are essential as well. To the extent that the clients in need of such services are off the grid, meeting in person may be necessary.
But it seems that a lot of what lawyers do is not so essential that we need to keep going to work and requiring staff to be there. It isn’t necessary to be in one’s office to do legal research, read transcripts, write letters or briefs, or review discovery. With case management orders suspended, depositions can wait if video is not a viable option. Transactions can be put off if the actors involved are reasonable.
Our firm has been working remotely for the most part for over two weeks. Doing so reduces the risk of exposure to or spreading the coronavirus while keeping operations going and serving our clients. With the technology available today, working remotely is possible, even if it is not always ideal. Those firms that choose to eschew working from home when it is feasible to do so are placing money over personal safety. This apocalypse will reveal the values and priorities of such firms.