The U.S. Courts’ COVID-19 Judicial Task Force has released guidance on conducting jury trials and convening grand juries during the pandemic.
The task force’s guidance, released on June 4, 2020, makes clear that each tribunal will ultimately set its own rules for jury trials after considering things like location, budget, and physical facilities.
Highlights from the guidance include:
- Communication. Courts are advised to ensure that jurors receive reasonable assurances about their safety prior to participating in jury service. Courts should consider jurors’ home situations, transportation issues, safety while in the courthouse, and concerns regarding being away from home. If jurors do not feel safe and are focused on COVID-19, they may not be able to properly focus on the evidence. Litigants should keep juror safety in mind too; jurors that feel a litigant is behaving unsafely might view the merits of their case less favorably.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE). Courts will be determining what level of PPE to require. Courts should consider what PPE all individuals (including jurors, attorneys, parties, the press, or other court personnel) are to wear. Courts also need to determine whether they will provide PPE or allow jurors to bring their own. Allowing jurors to bring their own PPE presents risks, including having contaminated PPE enter the building. Courts also need to determine whether and when individuals in the court must wear face coverings. This can present problems in communication with witnesses, attorneys, court reporters, and the judge. The courts will be balancing these considerations.
- Changes for jury selection and trial. The Task Force made several recommendations to limit or restrict person-to-person contact before and during trial. For instance, the Task Force recommends considering virtual voir dire where prospective jurors could participate from home. It also recommends working to limit contact between parties while in the courtroom by using other types of video or audio options (such as allowing sidebars to occur by an app or other type of electronic device), rather than require the litigants to approach the bench and be in close quarters with one another and the court.
- Courtroom preparations. Courtrooms may be modified. Counsel tables may be moved to locations different from normal. Courts may restrict movement of both attorneys and litigants. The Task Force recommends that counsel be directed to address the court, jury, and witnesses from the counsel tables.
With the rapidly changing circumstances, litigants must be prepared for anything and be able to adapt to what is likely to be a very wide range of approaches from various federal courts during jury trials. If you have questions about how the federal courts intend to handle jury trials in your area, contact the Jackson Lewis attorney with whom you work.