By Ipek Kurul, Esquire

All Rise for the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury – Juries in the time of COVID

Jury trials mesmerize the world and they ought to.  They churn the wheels of our legal system. The right to a jury is preserved in three of the first seven amendments to the United States Constitution.  The jury is one of the most powerful aspects of our legal system regardless of the type of law at hand.  The uncertainty, unpredictability, and power of the jury’s verdict is what gets attorneys to the settlement table instead of taking their chances with a group of mysterious strangers.   Now we are forced to rethink that concept in this COVID world.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to talk to a group of New Jersey attorneys about jury selection.  As I prepared for the content of my presentation, I started to ponder the changes we will face in jury selection and jury trials due to COVID.   As I thought about it more, I realized how much of a threat the pandemic is to the creation and composition of juries and therefore to the natural flow of cases. Before COVID, it was difficult enough for the parties to get diverse, competent, and attentive juries. Now, COVID presents challenges that endanger fundamental aspects of the jury selection process and the impartiality of the resulting jury.

COVID will change every step of the jury selection process, from the questionnaires and initial screening procedures, to how the jurors will sit in the jury box.  We are living in a world where we are told to keep six feet away from others but we are going to ask a group of strangers to come into the most public place, a courthouse, sit together for days, weeks and maybe months to decide a case that has nothing to do with them.  Think about that sacrifice.  As attorneys who depend on the longevity of jury trials, we need to make certain our jurors trust us to keep them safe.

So, as I started to write out my presentation, I began with the appreciation we must display for the prospective jurors.  We will need to make changes that foster that appreciation and respect.  We will need to make changes to the questionnaire and the questions in voir dire that display the legal profession’s collective balancing of the health and safety of jurors and the integrity of a jury trial.  Practical problems arise quickly, and the legal community needs to react appropriately.   We will have to re-arrange jury waiting and deliberation rooms where these strangers will sit waiting to be called upstairs to the courtrooms or discuss a case after trial.  We will need to re-arrange the way prospective jurors pile into the courtrooms sitting together in the gallery.  How about the jury box?  It is the opposite of six feet away.  Finally, will the jury box consist of a jury of our peers? I worry about that when COVID’s impact is harder on communities that are underresourced and underserved as well as our citizens who are predisposed due to age or health.

The significant changes COVID has brought into our communities does not stop at the courthouse steps. Fundamental aspects of our legal system must adjust and adapt to the COVID world. The juror’s job was already hard enough without COVID.  Asking jurors to touch pieces of evidence, watch live testimony, and sit in small rooms together is not COVID safe, but we need juries to do these things.  How is that going to work?  Disinfect the pictures or bullets found at the crime scene? Rent convention centers for jury trials? Have jurors appear digitally? At this point, no one knows how the legal community will adjust to preserve the right to a jury.

Dalton & Associates firmly believes in the power of a jury. Our firm’s tagline is “Trial and Appellate Counsel.” That is what we do. We work every one of our cases in anticipation of trial. We have a proven history of success taking complex cases to trial. Our firm has the largest verdicts in three different fields of law. Our experienced team of trial attorneys always stands ready to argue our cases.

If you have questions about this article, please contact us at law@bdaltonlaw.com