N.Y., California and other circuit courts re-open to public

The James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building, home of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is pictured in San Francisco
The James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building, home of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is pictured in San Francisco, California February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Noah Berger
  • 9th Circuit's buildings starting Thursday will be open to public
  • 1st, 2nd, 7th and D.C. Circuits plan to allow public to attend arguments
  • 2nd and D.C. Circuits will require masking

(Reuters) - Five federal appeals courts are set to throw open their courtroom doors to the public for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the last vestiges of the strict public health measures the judiciary adopted to combat the coronavirus are dismantled.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with the most active judges in the nation, starting on Thursday will reopen its four courthouses in California, Oregon and Washington state to the general public and make masks optional in most circumstances.

It will be followed on Sept. 6 by the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, both of which are reopening to the public, with masks optional in the 7th and required in the 2nd, except for lawyers presenting arguments.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, considered by many the second most important court after the U.S. Supreme Court, will likewise re-open its courtrooms to the public in September, with masks required, said Betsy Paret, a court spokesperson.

The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court Appeals says it plans to follow suit in October, allowing the public to watch arguments in person rather than listen through a YouTube stream, with a masks required based on risk conditions at each sitting.

The re-openings come after the Biden administration last week ceased COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated federal government employees and stopped asking them and visitors if they were vaccinated before they entered federal buildings.

"We still don't want people to come into courtrooms if they're sick or exposed, but it’s a transition," said Susan Gelmis, the chief deputy clerk for operations at the 9th Circuit. "We've been very mindful and cautious all along as we make changes."

The appeals courts, like many courts nationally, had switched at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 to holding arguments virtually and livestreaming arguments for the public to listen to online.

The five circuits, like their peers in the other eight circuits, had already resumed holding in-person arguments with only lawyers, judges and court staff present, though participants could still opt to argue virtually to help deter the spread of the virus.

Several other federal appeals courts, including the 3rd, 5th, 6th and 8th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, have already been allowing the public back through their doors and had made masks optional.

Gelmis said it was unclear to what extent members of the public would attend cases compared to before the pandemic, when high-profile cases and matters of local interest could draw large crowds to watch lawyers argue.

The 9th Circuit was the rare court that streamed arguments pre-pandemic.

The judiciary has said nearly all the circuits are at least considering continuing audio streams, though the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit has stopped for in-person cases.

Read more:

Livestreaming of federal appellate arguments may outlive pandemic, judiciary says

Federal courts relax COVID-19 mask requirements

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.