At least four more federal courts are using virtual jury trials to help move their civil dockets along during the pandemic, which has caused courts across the country to modify their operations.
The districts of Minnesota and the Middle District of Florida, which includes Jacksonville and Tampa, have already had their first virtual jury trial. The federal trial courts in Rhode Island and Kansas are planning theirs.
“When we realized that once we are able to conduct trials again, we’re going to have to prioritize criminal trials and we weren’t likely this year to get to in-person civil jury trials, we didn’t think it was appropriate to not offer litigants their Seventh Amendment rights for that long,” District of Rhode Island Chief Judge John J. McConnell said.
Federal courts in many cases during the pandemic have suspended jury trials and in-person proceedings, creating a backlog for when they reopen. For some courts, virtual trials present a way to address that now.
“This is a good way to keep us current on our civil caseload, while at the same time focusing our in-court proceedings on criminal cases when we’re able to start again,” said District of Minnesota Chief Judge John R. Tunheim, who presided over the district’s first virtual jury trial.
The four-day trial involving constitutional violations and a false imprisonment charge took place at the end of January.
The first virtual jury trial scheduled in the District of Rhode Island settled the day before it was to have started. McConnell said the court is increasing the amount of cases they schedule for virtual jury trials.
The Western District of Washington launched virtual jury trials in September, and is believed to have been the first. It’s been a template for others.
The district of Minnesota, Rhode Island, and the Middle District of Florida all mentioned they took cues from the Seattle-based court while making their own plans.
Judges who have done virtual trials are also recommending them to their colleagues.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat, and I highly recommend the virtual trial procedure to other judges in the District facing a backlog of civil cases due to the pandemic,” Judge Mary Scriven, who held the first virtual jury trial in the Middle District of Florida, said in a statement.
Although at least one state court has held a virtual criminal jury trial during the pandemic, judges say the same can’t be done at the federal level. The CARES Act gives courts the ability to do some criminal hearings virtually, if the defendant consents, but not the authority to do virtual jury trials, Tunheim said.
Virtual jury trials have meant courts need to get creative with their presentation.
To avoid confusion and give the appearance of an in-person court proceeding during the Minnesota trial, Tunheim said they used different backgrounds for different participants.
Jurors sat in front of a wooden wall backdrop and lawyers used a picture of the back of the courtroom, as Tunheim would typically see from the bench. His background was a seal of the court.
“It helps emphasize that this is a real trial and you don’t see something like a cat walking in front of the picture, which we’ve had plenty of in our hearings,” Tunheim said.
—With assistance from Porter Wells and Jasmine Han