Inside East Boston District Court, you might not think there was a highly contagious virus in our midst. Although masks are mandatory for everyone, WBUR found numerous court staff in the building not wearing them properly, or at all.
Some lawyers have complained about the court, a small facility off Maverick Square.
“There are reports of judges not wearing masks — court officers, probation, clerks,” said Victoria Kelleher, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “When you have a situation where the people at the top, the judges, are not following their own orders and there's no oversight, it creates problems.”
Masks are mandatory at all times in Massachusetts courts. But one recent day in East Boston, a WBUR reporter saw several people in the main courtroom with masks tucked under their chins. Employees in the clerk’s office did not wear masks at their desks, and an officer at the exit wore his mask below his nose.
The court’s clerk magistrate did not respond to a request for comment.
Kelleher said her members are concerned not only for themselves but for clients. Massachusetts has many older courts, where lockups for defendants are crowded and it’s unclear if air flow is sufficient.
“When you have a situation where the people at the top, the judges, are not following their own orders and there's no oversight, it creates problems.”Victoria Kelleher
In recent weeks, numerous courts in Massachusetts temporarily closed due to outbreaks of the coronavirus. There have been shutdowns in New Bedford, Wareham, Salem and Worcester, among others, including at juvenile and family courts.
Eleven employees at the New Bedford District Court tested positive for the virus in August. This week, several officers there were stationed outside the front door; two were asking medical questions and taking temperatures of anyone entering. Inside the court, everyone was wearing masks.
Outside, there was notable tension. At New Bedford and other courts, officers are charged with keeping the number of people in the buildings to a minimum. No one can enter without stating their business, including members of the press.
And there’s a low tolerance for hassles of any kind, as was clear this week when several court officers had a shouting match with two people outside the New Bedford court, ordering them to leave the grounds or face trespassing charges.
“Time to leave,” one officer shouted.
“Just go. Make your life simple,” another warned.
Paula Carey, chief justice of the Massachusetts Trial Court, acknowledged that some people are on edge during this unprecedented time.
But, she said, judges, clerk magistrates, chief probation officers and court officers should be setting the example and enforcing the rules.
“Together, they are the leaders of the court and they should be setting the tone as to the operation of our courts,” Carey said. “We need to deliver justice. We need to have our buildings open.”
The courts have guidelines to maintain social distancing and benches in courtrooms are marked. There are plexiglass barriers around judges, hand sanitizer stations, and efforts to improve air flow indoors.
But these measures vary from court to court, according to Kelleher. And lawyers are frustrated at the lack of contact tracing, she said.
“What we don't have is any kind of a system in place where, if there is a positive case within a courthouse, there is information provided to the lawyers,” she said. “That’s of great concern to us.”
And there can be confusion, particularly at smaller courts. In some cases, the public and lawyers only learn of an outbreak by a sign on the door.
The public can expect each court to operate slightly differently. In Dorchester, for instance, officers turned a WBUR reporter away recently, saying viewing or listening to cases was all remote for now.
Carey, the chief justice, said reporters should be allowed into courthouses as long as they’re not creating overcrowding.
The Supreme Judicial Court has set up an email hotline where lawyers and others can complain if they see unsafe practices. Officials say complaints will be kept confidential. One lawyer WBUR interviewed said attorneys are loath to complain about health concerns and risk irritating a judge.
The courts were largely closed to the public until mid-July due to the pandemic, with most business being done by phone or over Zoom sessions online. Even now, courts are still doing as much as possible remotely, Carey said. But jury trials are slated to return this fall.
“There are some matters that simply can’t be done remotely and we need to do them in person,” she said.
This segment aired on September 4, 2020.