The spread of coronavirus poses a potential complication for a U.S. legal system that gathers thousands of people each week to serve as jurors in criminal and civil cases.
So far, few trials have been disrupted, and judges are taking precautions to keep courts open, like video conferences for hearings and urging sick people to stay home. But with more infections expected, they’re also preparing for the possibility they may not be able to call anyone for jury duty.
“There are carriers among us -- we’ve embraced that,” said Bexar County, Texas, Judge Rosie Speedlin Gonzalez, who created rules for conducting business in her San Antonio courtroom to limit the risk of transmission during the outbreak. “It’s a matter of when, not if, this thing snowballs.”
About 150,000 criminal and civil trials occur each year across state and federal courts, according to the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts. While not all trials use juries, those that do are culled from dozens of citizens summoned randomly to the courthouse to serve for a day, a week or longer. That system will be pressured by the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
In Washington state, where at least 10 people have died in the nation’s worst-hit region, the top federal judge on Friday shut down courtrooms in Seattle and Tacoma until at least the end of the month. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco canceled hearings that involve attendance by all its judges for at least a week.
On Tuesday, a New York judge
Concerns about the outbreak may already be taking their toll on some jury pools, providing an early sign that more people than normal will seek to be excused from service, ask to show up at a later date, or just ignore summonses despite penalties that range from fines to jail time.
Normally, about 10% of summoned jurors don’t show up in Snohomish County, Washington, says Andrew Somers, an assistant administrator for the county’s superior court. On Monday, that jumped to around 30%. In nearby King County, which includes Seattle, half the usual number of summoned jurors were no-shows, according to Greg Wheeler, jury services supervisor.
“If we don’t have the jurors, trials don’t move forward,” said Somers. “It’ll start getting more complicated from here on out. We don’t know where the bottom is.”
The district clerk in Harris County, Texas, which includes the city of Houston, said the number of summoned jurors asking to reschedule their appearances rose in the past two weeks, though it isn’t clear if it was because of coronavirus. The county summons about 4,000 people a day to be available to serve on juries.
Should the jury pools start shrinking in the near term, courts may be forced to consider issuing more summonses, seating more alternate jurors as backups for anyone who gets sick or just rescheduling trials to cope with backlogs, said David Bradley, clerk of the federal courts for the Southern District of Texas. But that could change if the outbreak gets worse.
“If it becomes so bad that people are truly at risk coming to the courthouse, I don’t think we will be calling large numbers,” Bradley said.
Judges have wide discretion to delay court proceedings without violating anyone’s right to a speedy trial, he said.
In any case, postponements are nothing new in civil and criminal cases -- with some taking years to wind their way to a conclusion. And reforms to cash-bail laws mean many defendants in non-violent and and misdemeanor criminal cases won’t spend more time in jail awaiting trial.
Still, massive case delays because of coronavirus could compound an already crowded litigation calendar.
“Until they tell us they’re not going to call any more juries, we’re going to keep calling them in,” said Speedlin Gonzalez, who says she handled 13,000 mostly domestic and family violence cases last year and held 23 jury trials. “If I have to delay those cases, it cascades into the future and becomes a tsunami, a very unmanageable docket.”
The National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia, highlighted the risk for jury pools in the March 6 version of its national newsletter, urging administrators to reread advice it gave during the 2009 avian flu epidemic.
“This is all-hands-on-deck” for U.S. courts, Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the organization’s Center for Jury Studies, said in an interview. “You want the courts ideally to keep working somehow, but you don’t want to spread the contagion.”
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