A 'non-essential' litigator's lament
On the Fox TV show The Five this week, co-host Greg Gutfeld riffed about all the lawsuits sure to be filed due to COVID-19. Aside from its travel-related spread, and the onerous conditions in nursing homes, it was no yuk-it-up laugh for a lawyer to hear the hackneyed phrase that "first we kill all the lawyers" and that lawyers are all just a bunch of grubby ambulance-chasers hunting for clients.
Sometimes lawyers joke that they are one step up from police — reviled until one is needed. But there is nothing funny about courts being closed to all civil litigations while open only for emergency criminal procedures.
It is jarring and difficult for a civil litigator to hit a brick wall, with clients smacked into that wall along with him. Where is their justice? Their day in court? For now, nowhere.
Since mid-March, southeastern Pennsylvania federal and state courts have been closed, and all court-imposed deadlines covering civil litigations have been suspended. When one is using the legal system to fight for a client's business, or a client's loss of status and physical ability after a terrible accident, or trying to extricate a foreign business, incorrectly added to maritime litigation, or writing wills for individuals fearing that the end is near, or else almost at the point of settling a franchise dispute, a cemetery plot mix-up, a physical injury case, or an employment dispute, with defendants losing their incentive to move in the meantime, the silence is deadening. For the client, the plaintiffs, it's life-altering.
In Ecclesiastes 1:9, it is written multiple times, "There is nothing new under the sun." Well, just maybe, yes there is. Even when courts do reopen, the challenges at the onset will be great.
And yet, the restrictions were necessary. Courthouses are, unfortunately, Petri dishes for the coronavirus. The first peril is point of entry. As security has tightened, one must go through Transportation Security Administration–like screening to gain entry. Pockets and purses are emptied of keys and electronic equipment. Then one must go through a security gate, wanded if something beeps, and then the retrieval of personal belongings follows. To safely exit this procedure, one must be equipped with a mask, gloves, and wipes to clean keys and phones that have mingled with a mass of similar items. And that's just for starters.
How does a litigator maintain six feet from a client, many of whom are entering a courthouse for the first time in their lives and are petrified? One can't. It is also impossible, if one is to be effective, to keep six feet from an adverse witness or defendant on cross-examination. And, unfortunately, other crowded court procedures, such as the "call of the list" on Motions day, resemble herds of livestock being jam-packed and readied for auction.
As with many other aspects of our lives, COVID-19 has drastically affected our civil court systems, the backlog of which will take months to resolve. Meanwhile, people's economic lives have been affected and, in some cases, destroyed.
Some things just cannot be resolved remotely.
Image credit: Pixabay public domain.