COVID-19 Judicial Task Force Issued Suggestions for Conducting Jury Trials During the Pandemic

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COVID-19 Judicial Task Force Issued Suggestions for Conducting Jury Trials During the Pandemic
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When COVID-19 swept across the country the way even the simplest daily tasks operated had to change drastically and quickly. The justice system was no exception to this, forcing courts across the United States to rethink how jury trials could be safely conducted. Trial by a jury of peers is a cornerstone of American democracy, allowing 12 randomly selected and vetted people to deliberate over a case and decide whether they believe one party is liable or guilty for the actions they are accused of.

In reaction to the pandemic, courts initially closed as they tried to figure out a way to continue conducting jury trials without putting people at risk of catching the virus. Since then, jury trials have begun to be conducted over Zoom, presenting an entirely new set of challenges from the jury selection process to the way lawyers and judicial officials conduct the trial itself.

A COVID-19 Judicial Task Force was assembled to put together the best practices for jury trials going forward.

After a summer of brainstorming and collaboration, the COVID-19 Judicial Task Force has released a 19 page report regarding their suggestions for how to move forward with jury trials across the country. They clarify that the material contained therein is intended as suggestions and potential guidelines to follow, but that each state should modify as they sit fit according to their individual stage of recovery, funding, and general safety.

The report contains suggested decision-making protocol for topics from personal protective equipment (PPE) to locations for a jury to deliberate.

The task force recommends that every court follow their state and local government’s “gating criteria” before determining when and how to reconvene a jury. The report offers advice and suggestions for ways to hold jury trials in the immediate and impending future in light of the health-risks presented by the coronavirus. One of the first recommendations in the report is to make sure that all potential jury members are informed of what to expect from the process and in what ways a safe environment will be reasonably ensured.

The report also contains ideas for prescreening of jury members to eliminate from the selection those with specific health concerns or otherwise affected by the pandemic. Additionally, preparations of the spaces to be used for the actual hearing and jury deliberation are discussed, including ideas for social distancing and sanitization.

The hope of the task force is that every court will adapt the suggestions in the report in whatever way is most likely to benefit the health, safety, and functioning of the justice system and its participants in their specific locality.

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