Trial by Jury During and After Coronavirus: How Courts & Trial Lawyers Adjusted, Improvised, and Learned
The menacing virus that reared its ugly little head during the Spring of 2020 made its way into every aspect of our lives and our society. From sanitation workers to grocery clerks to lawmakers, restaurant owners, and defense attorneys, the pandemic’s ripple effects have been felt across the board. And while coronavirus is far from over, some aspects of life are attempting a return to some degree of normalcy. The court system in the United States was also profoundly affected. Starting with piles of delayed trials, virtual hearings, accidental courtroom outbreaks, health concerns and more, the justice system had its fair share of improvising and adjusting to do.
So how has all this affected jury trials?
Let’s look at some of the most far-reaching effects of the pandemic into the way we look at and conduct one of the most essential functions of our civil society.
Jury Trials in the Early Days of the Pandemic
In late April of 2020, many courts had already taken the initiative and closed their doors to public visitors and allowed only essential personnel. From there, many courts across the country began to make their own decision based on case count in their local communities. In November of 2020, several district courts across the country were following orders to shut down jury trials and other civil proceedings.
Jury Trials and Court Sessions in Texas Courts
In 2019, about 186 jury trials—both civil and criminal cases— were held weekly in Texas courts. From March of 2020 to June of 2020, that number plummeted to zero. From June to September 2020 about 25 criminal jury trials (including traffic violations and criminal cases) were conducted under special supervision of the state. That number still adds up to less than one-fifth of Texas criminal cases.
The Statesman reported that Texas tried 200 cases to verdict during the pandemic. In 2019, that number was 9,000. Estimates suggest that it will take judges a combined 102,000 hours of work to return the caseloads to 2019 levels.
Needless to say, all of this has created a serious backlog of cases for the Texas judicial system.
Courts had to improvise. This meant that many county courts tried holding jury trials under the supervision of the state, it meant that the way juries were chosen and retained had to be carefully considered and altered to meet social distancing guidelines and health considerations.It also meant that cases were often put on hold for two weeks, as someone involved was either in quarantine or recovering from covid.
Jury selection became a painstaking and slow process with plenty of logistical hoops, as jurors would be dismissed if they said they felt uncomfortable because of the pandemic.
Courts tried everything and implemented and experimented with:
- Remote hearings and testimonies
- Virtual witness appearances
- Socially distanced jury seating
- Trial by Zoom
- Jury selection in sports arenas
Texas Monthly reported on a case that happened in Texas as county courts were experimenting with the state supervision model. In this case, the defendant was transported from the county to a state courtroom, had been infected with coronavirus, and inadvertently exposed the entire courtroom and another defendant which then exposed the courtroom he was in.
Staff and jurors had to go home for two weeks to quarantine. It was these complications that made the early days of the pandemic exceedingly difficult and saw the backlog of the case docket grow exponentially.
Slowly, courtrooms found a rhythm and a process and began going through the backlog of cases.
Trial Attorneys During the Height of the Pandemic
During all the closures, many courts had to find ways to get the job done and advance what they could of the pending trials. When describing what it was like to try a case in court during the pandemic, one attorney replied, “it is like flying a plane, without an instrument rating, at night.”
That was the short answer. The long answer was far more complicated than that. A typical courtroom setup during the height of the pandemic looked a little something like this:
- Empty chairs with giant taped Xs in between jurors
- Bailiffs cleaning and disinfecting after every witness
- Changing out microphone covers after every witness
- Social distancing implemented in the seating area
- Limited capacity courtrooms
- Sanitized courtrooms every night
- Restrictions on who could enter courtroom
Jury Selection During Covid
In one jury selection, the process involved sending out health questionnaires to potential jurors. These questionnaires asked about the health of the juror and their spouse/partner or the family they lived with. Based on these responses, potential jurors would be dismissed and this would reduce the juror pool significantly for those preparing to go to court.
Challenges faced by trial lawyers included things like:
- Questioning masked jurors and being limited to facial expressions
- Questioning jurors that were more reluctant to speak
- Use of only electronic or virtual exhibits
- Plexiglass shield around the witness stand
- Questions about adequate acoustics given mask-wearing, distances, and plexiglass
- Video witnesses that could not be present in courtroom
- Infections in people involved in the trial
A Trial Lawyer Reflects on First Trial Post-Covid
As many courts across the country are resuming some if not all in-person functions, attorneys, lawyers, and staff are having to readjust and remember what it was like before the world shut down. One trial lawyer reflected on this in one publication and discussed the transition back from Zoom depositions and mediations to real-life, face-to-face interactions.
Some of the post covid changes that remain today in 2021 include:
- Facemask requirements in the courtroom
- Restricted courtroom access
- Social distancing rules that often have the jury spread apart (this makes it difficult for attorneys to address them as a group).
The Trial Must Go On, Be Prepared For Yours
And despite the difficulties, experimentations, temporary solutions, and permanent changes, the trial must go on. The courtrooms could not have stopped for very long, as trial by jury is a central part of our society.
Here at Jonathan Leach, we continue helping trial lawyers for their day in court. Whether it’s employing new virtual tactics and evidence presentation or interviewing jurors in the post-covid world, we are here for you. Trial preparation is a key aspect of a successful trial.
Call Jonathan Leach trial preparation today and learn how we can help you be ready.