Face mask requirements pose a new challenge as courts reopen

Courthouses around the country are slowly reopening, with a panoply of health and social distancing guidelines. One of the most basic rules is that everyone in the courthouse must wear a face mask — a wholly sensible approach from a public health perspective. But mandatory face coverings also pose interesting new challenges for lawyers, judges, and juries, because of our reliance on facial expressions to assess emotion and credibility.

Courts are awakening to the problem, and trying to develop creative ways to permit certain participants to uncover their faces while protecting public health. One possible solution is to conduct voir dire by videoconference.  Another is to cover witness and jury boxes with clear plexiglass, an admittedly second-best solution. As one Texas judge noted,

in Harris County, the courts are already installing plexiglass to protect the clerks, court reporters and bailiffs, who sit in high-traffic areas of courtrooms.

“I joke our courtrooms are going to look like a hockey rink,” he said. “We’re not putting plexiglass up around the jury box, because we haven’t figured out how we are going to conduct the jury trials. This is an issue that’s causing a lot of concern, because people sitting in the jury box are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder.”

Whatever the solution, the courtrooms will certainly feel different for a while.

Texas holds first Zoom jury trial

Yesterday, Texas held the first jury trial to be conducted exclusively through Zoom videoconferencing. The one-day summary jury trial was also livestreamed on YouTube.

This represents a major development, given that every other jurisdiction has simply postponed jury trials until courthouses reopen.  And judges are increasingly opening to the idea of remote trials in some form. On the other hand, some judges remain steadfastly opposed to trials outside the physical courtroom, and with courthouses beginning to reopen in the coming weeks, it remains to be seen how common videoconference trials will become.

Oregon forges ahead with some jury trials

While most states are delaying trials or holding them via videoconference, Oregon’s courts are continuing in-person jury trials for many criminal defendants. Social distancing guidelines have been put into place, but there is much trepidation on the part of jurors and observers alike.

“It is very unusual,” said Paula Hannaford-Agor, the director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit organization that supports state court systems. “To the best of my knowledge, Oregon has been the only state that I’m aware of that has been doing trials.”

Across the country some of the orders limiting or halting court functions are set to expire, Hannaford-Agor said, while others states have closures or limited court functions that extend until June and even July. Though Multnomah County has reopened trials, neighboring Clark County, Washington, has decided to delay all trials until at least July 6.

“Jury service is the very definition of community spread,” Hannaford-Agor said. “There’s probably no better way to spread the infection than putting anywhere from 50 to 300 people in a room together sitting side-by-side for hours at a time.”

In Oregon, many trials have been rescheduled. But for some criminal defendants who are in custody that’s not possible. Oregon law has less flexibility than other states when it comes to speedy trials and no emergency provision to delay them. In custody defendants get the right to a [trial] within 60 days of their arrest.

State courts extend and explain COVID-19 protocols

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Colorado and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts respectively sent letters to their registered attorneys, informing them of recent measures taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Massachusetts will be extending its courthouse closures for most matters, including all jury and bench trials, while tolling statutes of limitations through the end of May. Colorado has delegated considerable administrative decisionmaking authority to the chief judge of each judicial district, in acknowledgement of the different circumstances and available resources in each district.

Decline in jury trials the “single biggest loss” to the legal profession, judges say

At a conference at Berkeley this week, several prominent federal judges address the rapid decline in jury trials at the federal level, with Judge David Campbell of Arizona calling the decline the “single biggest loss” to the legal profession.

Law360 has a good roundup, including efforts by judges to make trials affordable and efficient again:

The trend has driven judges to try to incentivize lawyers and their clients to accept expedited litigation schedules so that the parties aren’t embroiled in protracted pretrial disputes for years, according to federal judges speaking at the event, which was hosted by the University of California, Berkeley School of Law’s Berkeley Judicial Institute and the California Law Review.

Judge Campbell said he tried giving parties the option of sending their cases to trial within four months of filing suit. At the outset, he would require the lawyers to provide their clients with two budgets: one budget that estimated the costs of “old-fashioned” litigation and another that would estimate how much it would cost to go to trial within four months, which was always cheaper, he said.

Out of about 800 civil cases, Judge Campbell said not a single one went to trial under the expedited format.  About 80 to 100 parties expressed an interest in the shorter litigation schedule, but the counter party in the case wouldn’t agree to it, the judge said. In three instances, both parties took him up on the offer, but then all three cases were either settled or dropped before trial, Judge Campbell said.

The decline of the jury trial is deeply troubling on many fronts, not the least of which is that is denies affected parties the opportunity to tell their stories in a dignified and open forum. The power behind the opportunity to be heard cannot be stressed enough — it is one of the primary reasons why courts have maintained their legitimacy as institutions.

Not every case should go to trial, of course. But too many cases settle for the wrong reasons — cost, delay, emotional toll, or the desire for secrecy. Restoring a culture of jury trials in our courts would be an important step toward restoring confidence in American democracy as a whole.