EDITOR’s NOTE: There is never a good time to be stuck in jail, awaiting disposition of one’s criminal charges. Given the latest pronouncement by Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson of Louisiana’s Supreme Court, it’s even worse during a pandemic.
The court has further eroded the protections ensured every American in the Bill of Rights, prohibiting criminal trials until June 30. Those idle days, spent idling in jail by any accused unable to post bail, will not count against the 120 days allowed the State to bring a felony charge to trial (30 days in the case of misdemeanors).
The 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution ensures; ” In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial…” Louisiana’s constitutional counterpart is found in Article I, Section 16 in Declaration of Rights, unqualified by the existence of an emergency declaration. Chief Justice Johnson justified the action, saying:
“The Louisiana Supreme Court perseveres in committed jurisprudence as it works to keep the safety and wellbeing of Louisiana’s citizens a priority.”
Whatever that means.
Lousisiana’s Constitution, Article II is entitled Distribution of Powers and includes two sections:
Section 1. The powers of government of the state are divided into three separate branches: legislative, executive, and judicial.
Section 2. Except as otherwise provided by this constitution, no one of these branches, nor any person holding office in one of them, shall exercise power belonging to either of the others.
Article V: Judicial Branch includes 35 separate sections, not one of them tasking Chief Justice Johnson and her six colleagues with prioritizing the public wellbeing.
The State High Court’s orders can be read below.
The Louisiana Supreme Court issued two new orders dated May 15. Acting under the authority of Article V, Section 1 and 5 of Constitution of 1974, and the inherent power of this Court, and considering the continuing spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards’ renewal of state of emergency for COVID-19 and extension and modification of emergency provisions in Proclamation Numbers 58 JBE 2020 and 59 JBE 2020, President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on March 13, 2020, the Orders of this Court dated April 6, April 22 and April 29, 2020, and 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 issued the following two orders.
The first Order addresses statewide court operations and reads as follows:
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT:]
- Prior Orders: This Order shall repeal and replace the Orders of this Court dated April 6, April 22 and April 29, 2020.
- Jury Trials: No civil or criminal jury trial shall commence in any Louisiana state court before June 30, 2020.
- In-person proceedings: The prohibition on conducting in person proceedings is hereby lifted, and courts are authorized to conduct in-person proceedings on all matters. This authority does not extend to any matters suspended by executive action by the Governor, including but not limited to evictions. Courts must continue 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 25% 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. As this situation is constantly changing, courts are further instructed to follow all guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control, the President and the Governor, and to further limit access to courtroom and other spaces to the maximum number of people set forth in any future guideline or official proclamation that may be issued. All matters should continue to be conducted with the use of video and telephone conferencing whenever possible.
- Speedy Trial Computations: Given the public health concerns and the necessity of taking action to slow the spread of the disease, the continuances occasioned by this Order serve the ends of justice and outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial. Therefore, the time periods of such continuance shall be excluded from speedy trial computations pursuant to law, including but not limited to those set forth in the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure and the Louisiana Children’s Code, and presumptively constitute just cause.
The second Order extends filing deadlines for the Louisiana Supreme Court and reads as follows:
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT:
All filings which were or are due to this Court between Thursday, March 12, 2020 through Friday, June 5, 2020 shall be considered timely if filed no later than Monday, June 8, 2020. Parties who are unable to meet this deadline due to the COVID-19 emergency may submit motions for extensions of time, supported by appropriate documentation and argument.