How Can Jury Trials Resume During COVID-19?

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In the remote Kootenai Valley of northwestern Montana, the Libby Middle High School gymnasium will become a courtroom, the Wall Street Journal reports. The gym is perhaps the only place in Lincoln County where 100 prospective jurors can gather with social-distancing and other safety measures to be selected for a domestic-assault trial set to begin June 9, also possibly in the gym. All participants will get regular temperature checks, masks and hand sanitizer and surfaces are to be regularly disinfected. “You have some absolute constitutional rights that defendants have—a jury of 12 people, from their community, in a timely fashion,” said District Court Judge Matthew Cuffe. At the same time, prospective jurors “have the right to a clean, healthy and safe environment.”

These extraordinary measures illustrate challenges facing courts as they try to resume jury trials during a public-health crisis. Nationwide lockdowns have put a near total halt to jury trials, a bedrock of the justice system. Jury service, by its nature, brings together large groups of people, often into cramped quarters. During the pandemic, most courts have conducted arraignments, oral arguments and even drug courts by video or teleconference. Maintaining an indefinite pause on jury trials isn’t an option. The U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a speedy public trial by an impartial jury. State courts handle 106,000 trials each year, tens of thousands of which have already been delayed because of the coronavirus shutdowns, said Paula Hannaford-Agor of the National Center for State Courts.  “That’s been the single biggest headache—how are you going to resume [jury trials]”? Ms. Hannaford-Agor said. “There is a lot of very creative thinking going on around this.” The result will be a patchwork of cautious improvisations, reflecting distinct court rules, local public-health guidance and the varying tolls of COVID-19 state to state.

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