The federal courts are tackling the coronavirus threat, making scheduling changes, encouraging electronic filing, and restricting access to facilities, among other measures.
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Tennessee Trial Court Splits on Starting Civil, Criminal Juries
Posted: Thursday, July 9
The Middle District of Tennessee, which covers Nashville, will allow civil jury trials to proceed while continuing to postpone criminal jury trials and grand jury proceedings.
The July 8 order is a different approach to resuming court operations from other federal courts that have prioritized a criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial over civil litigation. But Chief Judge Waverly Crenshaw said the court wouldn’t start criminal juries until it could get a fair cross section of the community to participate amid the virus.
“Given the reported disparate effects of COVID-19 on different categories of persons, jurors who do appear for service may present a jury pool skewed in terms of age and life experiences,” Crenshaw said in the order.
He also said criminal jury trials aren’t feasible when health guidance recommends limiting the amount of people physically present in the same room. A mock criminal jury trial the court conducted in June “underscored the need for careful planning,” Crenshaw said.
“As such, it is not safe, at this time, for counsel, witnesses, jurors, court staff, or members of the public to be present in the courtroom for a criminal jury trial,” Crenshaw said.
Federal Courts Plan for Phased Reopening
Posted: Tuesday, June 16
The Wilmington-based District of Delaware will resume its pre-pandemic in-person operations in phases based on virus testing and the relaxing of state- and community-wide orders, District Judge Leonard P. Stark said Monday.
Under Phase I, limited grand jury operations may resume, visitors and court staff must continue to wear face coverings, and remote conferencing means should be used as much as possible.
Before the court enters Phase II, there should be a noted decrease of new positive Covid-19 tests in the local community and “continued relaxation” of state or local orders to restrict movement or to shelter in place, according to Delaware’s guidelines.
Phase II would restart jury trials and maybe even petty offense proceedings, which most federal courts, including Delaware, have suspended in the face of the public health crisis.
“Even after entering Phase Two, the court should consider returning back to Phase One if local conditions worsen,” Delaware’s guidance document advises.
New cases are on the rise in a number of states despite efforts to reopen their economies. Delaware has seen more than 10,000 positive cases of Covid-19, with 139 new cases being logged between June 14 and 16, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.
The Asheville-based Western District of North Carolina, the Knoxville-based Eastern District of Tennessee, and the Roanoke-based Western District of Virginia have also used court orders to announce that they are undertaking a phased approach to restarting in-person proceedings and jury trials.
Judiciary Releases Juries Guidance for Federal Courts
Posted: Wednesday, June 10
Pre-screening jurors based on health, using larger courtrooms for jury assembly, and virtual jury selection in certain circumstances are among the policies the federal judiciary suggest courts adopt when bringing back juries amid the coronavirus pandemic.
That Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts guidance came in a June 10, report for federal courts considering restarting in-person procedures during the outbreak that has killed more than 112,000 people in the U.S. and sickened nearly 2 million more. The AO guidance is the most comprehensive one issued to date for resuming federal court jury trials.
Restarting juries is up to each court and, in some cases, each division of that court.
“When each court determines that the time is right, the judiciary must reconstitute jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the administrative office said.
Its suggestions in the 19-page document are as broad as enhanced cleaning of court facilities and as specific as swapping identification pins for stick-on badges to limit contact with jurors.
One recommendation in the guidance that may be controversial, especially in criminal matters, is virtual jury selection.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers recently said virtual voir dire, when prospective jurors are questioned by attorneys or a judge during the selection process, “compromises the ability to get up-close and explore potential juror demeanor and bias as expressed through non-verbal communication.”
—With assistance from Christina Brady, Perry Cooper, and Jordan Rubin
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