Courts Halt Jury Trials Amid Rising COVID-19 Cases

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Courts across the U.S. are shutting their doors again due to rising COVID-19 cases, including several that had outbreaks inside their courthouses, Bloomberg Law reports. State and federal courts—including those in Texas, New York, Maryland, New Mexico, and Illinois—have suspended jury trials as a result of spikes in COVID-19 infections. “Vigilance is the watchword,” said Southern District of Texas Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal in Houston. “Every day we check the numbers.” At the beginning of the pandemic, courts nationwide halted in-person operations. As health conditions have allowed, they’ve been slowly trying to resume those operations. Rising infections are slowing progress. More than dozen judges and court administrators across the U.S. said they’re taking a variety of approaches to the latest surge in the pandemic. The most common measure is halting jury trials, which were just starting to return.

Federal courts in New Mexico won’t be holding jury trials for the remainder of the year. Chief Judge William Johnson said, “If you try to modify your jury plan to where it might be more COVID-friendly, what you’d be doing in my district is potentially excluding Native Americans,” Johnson said. Western District of Washington Chief Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle said spiking numbers could halt plans to begin in-person jury trials in coming weeks. Martinez believes there are enough people willing to serve as jurors, but is concerned that “you may be able to make a really good argument from the defense perspective that you’re not getting a jury that’s representative of the jury pool.” In a Texas federal courthouse, at least 13 people involved in a civil jury trial tested positive for COVID-19. The court declared a mistrial. In the Eastern District of Arkansas, almost 100 people requested to be excused from jury duty in October and November for virus-related reasons.

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