Courts across the world are continuing to think creatively in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Some Scottish courts will now be holding socially distanced jury trials in movie theaters, where the 15-person juries can spread out, watch the presentation of testimony and evidence on the big screen, and then deliberate in person.
This follows similar efforts in the UK and US to use large open spaces for trials, including fairgrounds and convention centers. While we all look forward to the day when trials are back in a proper courtroom, the efforts to keep the wheels of justice turning are surely praiseworthy.
Gothamist has a really nice piece by Beth Fertig about socially distanced trials in a Brooklyn Housing Court. Even with Herculean efforts on the part of judges and court staff, these trials are a mess. Lawyers and clients cannot sit next to each other. Entire courthouses have been deemed too small to hold any trials. Members of the public cannot view the trial because of social distancing restrictions. It just feels…weird.
The story underscores how deeply procedural fairness is built into a traditional trial. Under ordinary circumstances, trials would be open to the public and the media. Parties would sit with their lawyers and confer with them throughout the process. In jury trials, simply being in the courtroom would place pressure on jurors to pay close attention to the arguments and evidence. Lawyers would be able to confront witnesses without any fear that they are being coached by someone off-camera. There would be a strong sense of both party involvement and public transparency.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced courts to choose strategies that weaken one or both of these values. In-person, socially distanced trials allow some form of party involvement, including confronting witnesses. But they forfeit much of the transparency that benefits both the public and the parties. By contrast, videoconferenced trials are more amenable to public view, but raise problems for parties who lack the proper technology, or whose homes are more chaotic or challenging than the august, stoic nature of the courtroom.
All this is to say that the sooner we can get back to regular courtroom proceedings, the better. And in the meantime, we should be more cognizant of the due process considerations that are already so carefully built into our traditional trial structure.
Court administrators have had to act nimbly during the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic, in order to balance public safety with the requirements of due process. Now, some county courts in Oregon are considering yet another creative solution: holding jury trials at local fairgrounds in order to meet the requirements of social distancing.
The fairgrounds are already owned by the respective counties where trials might be held. They are easy to get to, have ample parking, and offer wide-open and largely unused buildings, making them an attractive option for courts. Still, there are many logistics that have yet to be worked out:
So far in Deschutes County, court officials have developed lists of what will be needed at the fairgrounds. On the to-do list is to look at the costs of renting tents and other furnishings like chairs, tables, maybe a riser to put a bench up on.
Heating, air conditioning and restrooms will be needed to keep people comfortable, because jurors need to be focused only on listening to the evidence, Ashby said. Secure and private rooms are needed for lawyers to meet with clients and jurors and judges to deliberate. Boxes and boxes of computer and recording equipment must be relocated and tied in with the county IT system and the fairgrounds PA system. Security is another primary concern.
“Our number one priority is making the courthouse as safe as humanly possible,” Ashby said. “Competing with that are statutory timelines, which require us to try cases, the most pressing of which are in-custody criminal defendants.”
Plans like this are born of necessity, but it will be fascinating to see what courts learn from the experience, and how some of these options might influence court administration after the pandemic subsides.
As courthouses across the country slowly begin to reopen, individual federal district courts are wrestling with the best way — if at all — to convene grand juries for criminal cases. Bloomberg Law has a good article exploring some of the approaches that different courts are taking. Among them: holding grand jury proceedings in the courthouse with social distancing, holding proceedings entirely online, and simply waiting to convene grand juries until the situation improves.
Each approach obviously has strengths and weaknesses. There are the obvious health concerns about bringing people into a building. But there are also important countervailing considerations. Purely online proceedings may not allow for a fair cross-section of the community, since essential workers and those without adequate internet access (among others) may not be able to participate. At the same time, simply waiting for the pandemic to subside is inconsistent with the efficient administration of justice. As time passes, memories fade and witnesses become harder to find.
So there is no simple answer here. But a system in which courts have the discretion to tailor their approaches allows court leaders to collectively learn from their successes and setbacks.
A snippet from a fascinating Law360 article, which notes that a temporary ban on jury trials combined with a judicial vacancy rate over 10% does not bode well for access to justice in the Garden State:
“My fear is the backlog of trials … whenever jury trials start again, is going to require so much attention from the judges that it’s probably going to have an effect on how other matters proceed in terms of motions and things that normally would be getting done sooner rather than later,” said Keith McDonald of Norris McLaughlin PA.