Jury selection over Zoom? Courts adapt to COVID-19 shutdown

Jury selection over Zoom? Courts adapt to COVID-19 shutdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a mass shutdown of businesses, schools and offices – and courtrooms are no exception. Court officials, defense attorneys, plaintiffs and defendants are all adapting to a new norm — and that means limiting in-person hearings, delaying trials and even conducting jury selection over Zoom, as one court in Texas tried in early May.

Summoned to jury duty… on Zoom

More than two dozen potential jurors logged onto a Zoom videoconference call for jury selection on May 18 in an insurance dispute case in Collin County District Court. The process was live-streamed on Judge Emily Miskel’s YouTube page. 
While both parties eventually agreed to mediation, Miskel told Reuters that the Zoom call was “successful” and it could lead to changes in court procedure: a “hybrid approach” where jury selection is virtual and the rest of the trial is conducted in person. This could be a vital solution as the pandemic carries on. Even with the use of masks and social distancing, it could be a challenge to safely accommodate hundreds of people for in-person jury duty.
Other state judiciaries are also exploring remote options. New Jersey has announced a pilot program to hold virtual grand jury proceedings on Zoom in two counties. Arizona plans to move forward with remote jury selection, and the Indiana Supreme Court said once jury trials resume, parties in civil cases in that state can agree to conduct proceedings remotely. 

New York courts

Meanwhile, the New York State court system reopened courthouses in 30 upstate counties that meet Governor Andrew Cuomo’s safety benchmarks for normal operation. Still, these courtrooms will operate in a limited capacity as officials take measures to restrict courthouse foot traffic. Anyone within the courthouses must wear masks and non-employee visitors will be screened for COVID-19. Social distancing markers and safety features like acrylic barriers have also been installed. 
At the same time, courts are simultaneously expanding virtual operations, and new cases in these upstate counties can be filed electronically. 
This combination of in-person courthouse safety measures and online operations will serve as a model for courthouses in other parts of the state yet to reopen. 


What about the right to a speedy trial?

An important right for criminal defendants is the right to a speedy trial provided by the Sixth Amendment – but with some courts still shut down, criminal justice advocates say this right is being violated.  In the end, courts will need to decide if these rights were violated and, if so, how this will impact the ultimate disposition of many cases.  
Many state legislatures have imposed time limits regarding when the prosecution can bring a defendant to trial. If legislators decide not to change the rules, defendants could avoid conviction due to the enormous backlog of cases that are mounting. 
Some states may opt to extend the deadline for a speedy trial, but once the COVID-19 emergency subsides, the issue of timing will likely be raised in many criminal cases across the country.