The Covid-19 pandemic has affected us all, including the legal system. Day to day operations have ceased. Currently only matters involving emergencies or in-custody defendants continue to proceed. Public health officials urge social distancing in this new age of the pandemic. Calls for social distancing do not feel as if they will end soon.
Social distancing presents problems for many courtroom procedures. Most court proceedings now are by Zoom. The most celebrated courtroom procedure of all – the jury trial – would seem impossible to complete with social distancing.
What Will Happen to Jury Trials in the Pandemic?
The Supreme Court announced that there will be no jury trial in the state of Michigan until at least June 22, 2020. Wayne County went further in delaying all jury trials until August 17, 2020. Wayne County, of course, an Detroit in particular, has been hard by the Coronavirus. The Court’s announcement came just before Governor Whitmer extended the shutdown order until May 15.
It is unlikely jury trials will instantly resume on June 22. At least that’s the way it seems at this point in time. June 22 seems like a placeholder date for courts to use and evaluate where things stand.
Jury Trial Pandemic Problems
A jury pool is called into court. There might be 50 people put in one large room. They’re all sitting on benches right next to each other. A group of jurors sits the jury box, an enclosed place where each person sits about a foot or so away from the other. The jury box is like the viewing gallery for the trial. During breaks, the jury walks together to a backroom, the jury room. The jury will then be in that room during breaks or during deliberations. This is all the opposite of social distancing. A jury trial is seemingly impossible to conduct with social distancing.
The Supreme Court’s Order also contains instructions for courts to work proactively to see if jury trials might be possible in a different form than we’re used to. The Order says, “The Supreme Court Administrative Office is authorized to initiate pilot projects regarding practices related to how to conduct remote jury trials. The pilot courts will test and evaluate innovative jury procedures to allow for appropriate social distancing while also protecting the parties’ Constitutional and statutory rights.”
This is scary. First, the order implies that we’re not going back to jury trials on June 22. Why else would there be a pilot project to test remote jury trials. Second, this means jury trials will look a lot different than they do now.
Likely, this means doing a jury trial by zoom (better hope your screen doesn’t freeze up). I think most criminal defense attorneys will say “no way” to a remote jury trial. The reasons are so lengthy they could fill a separate article. No attorney wants to be the guinea pig for that experiment.
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Call Sam Bernstein at 734-883-9584 or e-mail at email@example.com.
Sam Bernstein is a Criminal Defense Attorney in Ann Arbor.
ArborYpsi Law is located at 4158 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48108.