One of the first federal judges to resume jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic likened the experience to “building an airplane while you’re flying it.” A playbook for resuming jury trials is emerging from these pioneering judges who have conducted jury trials in the wake of COVID-19.
First, the layout and the physical arrangement of jurors, in particular the confinement of the jury box, must be addressed. One solution has been to spread jurors out in the gallery — to allow for social distancing. Going further, other courtrooms have added physical barriers and guards. In addition to plexiglass barriers, some courts have installed audio systems with headsets that enable clients and lawyers to whisper to each other, much as they would in a traditional courtroom, but from a safe distance. One such recommendation is to proceed with smaller juries. For instance, Wisconsin law allows for a jury of six persons in civil cases.
The next set of the recommendations focus on safety practices, which include requiring facial coverings be worn by all individuals in the courtroom (judges and staff included), having prospective jurors’ temperatures taken as they enter the court building, providing hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, disinfectant spray and paper towels. Another practical policy is to avoid passing exhibits between jurors.
Courts also have wrestled with the question of who must wear masks in the courtroom. Most courts seem to be on the side of masks for all persons in the courtroom. This is problematic because of the difficulty of assessing credibility of someone in a mask, a core function of the jury. Where possible, courts have permitted witnesses to be examined without masks, via video from within a room in the courthouse.
The challenges of in-person jury trials have led some courts to experiment with more novel ideas. Could a jury trial be conducted by Zoom? It appears so. Remote civil jury trial pilot programs in Florida and Texas are already in place. A jury trial that occurred in Florida commenced entirely via Zoom; some potential jurors had to be dismissed for technical issues during jury selection. As expected, audio and video feeds occasionally froze. The judge was often asking each individual juror: “Can you see me? Can you hear me?” Despite technical issues, the Florida Zoom trial was successful.
There is no single antidote for resuming jury trials in the wake of this pandemic. In the words of Hibbing, Minnesota’s most famous resident, “the times they are a-changin’.” More than ever, courts and communities must work together to safely preserve the right to a jury trial and concomitant duty to serve as a juror.