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Judiciary Issues Report on Restarting Jury Trials

A comprehensive new report on conducting federal jury trials and convening grand juries during the pandemic details the number of factors for courts to consider, from changes to prospective juror questionnaires to creating safe spaces for jurors to deliberate safely.

“Jury trials are the bedrock of our justice system, expressly provided for in the Constitution and in the Sixth and Seventh Amendments,” the report says. “When each court determines that the time is right, the judiciary must reconstitute jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The newly released 16-page report was written by a group of federal trial judges, court executives, and representatives from the federal defender community and the Department of Justice as part of the work of the COVID-19 Judiciary Task Force.

“There is no one-size fits all approach, and not all of the suggestions will be necessary, practical, or feasible in all districts,” the report says. “At its core, this report offers guidance to help individual courts consider the multitude of issues that will impact reconvening jury trials in our federal courts.”

The goal of the report is to assist each court in developing and implementing protocols that will minimize the health and safety risks for jurors, attorneys, witnesses, parties to lawsuits, members of the public, the press, and court employees.

The appropriate time to reconvene juries will differ state by state, district by district, and perhaps even division by division. Each court will need to review its state and local government’s “gating criteria” in determining when to reconvene a petit jury or grand jury. Different institutions including the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have offered guidance.

Among the issues covered by the report are:

  • the type and amount of personal protective equipment needed to accommodate jurors, the public, attorneys, members of the press, and witnesses;
  • addressing jurors’ concerns about protecting their health from the earliest stages of the process;
  • juror travel to and from the courthouse;
  • social-distancing and deep-cleaning procedures for courthouse spaces; and,
  • seating jurors and other participants in ways that mitigate health risks.

The report stresses that, “Jurors must be given reasonable assurance of their safety before participating in the jury process. They must be comfortable during a trial and be able to focus on the evidence and not the risk of a COVID-19 infection.”

To account for the wide variety of operational differences among courts and the varying levels of impact of the pandemic on communities, the jury group members were drawn from every region of the country and from both large, urban districts and smaller, more rural court districts.

“Our report strives to balance the need to resume jury trials with a court’s responsibility and obligation to protect the health and safety of jurors, other trial participants, court employees, and the public,” said Judge Robert J. Conrad, Jr., of the Western District of North Carolina, who chairs the group.