The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many aspects of our lives, from work and education to entertainment and relaxation. Many families face one of the most challenging times they’ve ever encountered, or at the least, the most considerable disruption since the 2008 financial meltdown. The legal sector is one of the industries most profoundly affected by COVID-19, and in particular, one of the cornerstones of our society – the jury trial.
Enshrined in the Constitution as a fundamental right of the accused, trial courts have struggled since the outbreak of the pandemic to determine how to proceed. Courtrooms accommodate a vast number of people, which may include perhaps a dozen jurors, more alternates, visitors in the gallery — not to mention the judge, attorneys, defendants, and others. In such a space, especially in smaller courthouses, achieving proper social distancing might well seem impossible.
With so many challenges to overcome, how have trial courts responded to these challenges? What are the current effects of COVID-19 on jury trials?
Shutdowns Put Many Trials on Pause
As it became clear that the new coronavirus was spreading unchecked in communities across the nation, many courts began to take pre-emptive action to slow the spread. In states across the country, proceedings were scaled back or canceled. By late March, for example, Florida’s Chief Justice ordered all state circuit courts to postpone any proceedings not deemed “essential.” The spread of stay-at-home orders and shutdowns led many courts to close altogether, putting almost all court functions on pause except for those conducted over video conferencing platforms. By and large, the jury trial system ground to a halt, creating substantial delays that some courts are still struggling to clear even months later.
Some Areas Start the Process of Restarting Trials
With lockdowns ended and reopening proceeding in stops and starts, the courts have tried to find ways to proceed with regular business once again. Zoom conferences have seen use at the highest level, with the Supreme Court hearing arguments in cases digitally for the first time. In one Austin, Texas courtroom, an entire jury trial was conducted by Zoom — though not without some technical hiccups along the way. In Los Angeles County, California, courts continue preparations to resume jury trials with safety measures in place. Such steps include face coverings, limiting the number of people in the courtroom, and additional separation between jurors.
Jury Selection Poses Challenges
Even though jury trials have begun to resume or will continue digitally in some jurisdictions, creating a jury may prove challenging for many. One problem: many may not be able to make it to a courtroom to fulfill a jury summons due to their at-risk status. Others may be in a position of caring exclusively for loved ones who cannot safely venture into public spaces. Even when assembling a sufficient pool of jurors, the voir dire process may take longer than usual due to the need to carefully observe social distancing guidelines.
Uncertainty Remains Going Forward
What happens if a juror tests positive for COVID-19 in the middle of a trial? What if a defending attorney becomes ill, or the prosecutor cannot arrive to make her arguments? These are some of the challenging questions still facing courtrooms across America — questions that are likely to persist as we head into the fall flu season. With experts concerned about the twin effects of the flu and COVID, a return to restrictions may be possible. For now, though, caution is the order of the day. As lawyers, judges, and jurors try to navigate these challenges, they do so in an effort to sustain the bedrock of our system of law.