The Iowa Judicial Branch has issued orders to resume jury trials for both civil and criminal cases, along with measures to make sure the health and safety of jurors and others in the courtroom are taken into account.
However, with the way many courthouses are designed, practicing social distancing is a problem, according to one district court judge. The judges of District 2A, which covered nine counties in northeastern and north-central Iowa, will meet by Zoom on Friday to discuss the state Supreme Court’s guidance.
District Court Judge Christopher Foy, who is based at the Bremer County Courthouse in Waverly, told Waverly Newspapers the July 22 order does as much as the court is able to do at the moment to strike a balance between getting things going again and keep everyone safe.
“I think the biggest challenge with the order is just trying to carry out the social distancing requirements, given the physical limitations of the courtrooms that most trials have been held in in this area,” Foy said.
The order is broken into three main areas: Juror summoning and check-in, jury selection and trial, and deliberations. Among the suggestions on summoning, the order, signed by Chief Justice Susan Larson Christensen, suggests limiting simultaneous jury trials; have modified schedules; increasing the jury pool, which it gave a 50% increase as an example; have it done earlier than usual, maybe about 2-4 weeks; maybe use larger facilities like gymnasiums or auditoriums; have an advance health screening questionnaire; allow deferrals for up to a year; consider handling hardship challenges by using online communications prior to reporting; have a hotline for jurors to report if they’re symptomatic with the coronavirus; use dividers where necessary; specific steps for juror check-in; and the arrangement of juror meals.
The order also says when selecting a jury, the court should communicate efforts to make sure the proceedings are safe. Also, there could be smaller jury panels where necessary and maybe have remote voir dire, or preliminary examination, via video conferencing. The court would also provide face shields for the jurors and reconfigure the courtroom to allow the 6-foot distancing requirements and limit the time for voir dire and opening and closing arguments.
There are also requirements over private conferences with prospective jurors, the presentation of exhibits, sidebars and breaks as well as putting notebooks and pens inside an envelope when not in use. The order also suggests that jurors not see any criminal defendant’s custody status, e.g. not have someone in custody in the courtroom wearing handcuffs or shackles.
For deliberations, the order suggests that the jury room be able to provide for the distancing guidelines, with adequate sightlines and sound amplification while also maintaining confidentiality and integrity and being able to view exhibits.
Foy is unsure of the feasibility for many cases to be tried in the main courtroom in Waverly, which he considered “average sized,” under those guidelines. He said the attorneys and the parties in the trial would need their own space as well.
“I think that trying to carry out the order is going to be a challenge,” he said. “There are some courtrooms that are smaller, and the smaller the courtroom, the bigger the challenge in trying to conduct the trial.”
He added that there will be some potential jurors who will be uncomfortable participating in the process, even before the pandemic started.
“Somebody says, ‘I’m at high risk at contracting this because of these conditions or my age,’ how are we going to deal with those situations?” Foy asked. “Now, with the presence of COVID-19 in our state, this raises another potential reason somebody may not want to serve.”
He added that many of the judges he’s spoken with about the order are uncertain and “a bit anxious” about how court proceedings will work under this order.
“A jury trial involves a lot of parts, a lot of different participants, and it’s usually one of the more challenging types of trials that a court will conduct,” he said, “because of the various concerns that you want to have a fair and impartial jury.
“You want to make sure people aren’t interacting — folks outside of the case aren’t interacting with the jury and perhaps exposing them to information that could improperly influence their decision. The evidentiary standard in most jury trials are more demanding than if it’s just a trial to the judge, a bench trial. Now, we’re going to be superimposing those concerns that come with a jury trial (with) these health issues.”
Foy added that he doesn’t believe the jury box in the main Bremer County courtroom could adequately space out an eight-member civil jury panel, much less a 12-member criminal jury with alternates. Also, neither of the two jury rooms would be large enough for deliberations.
“I appreciate the fact that the Supreme Court is doing what it can to move things forward and try to give some guidance about how to approach jury trials at this present time,” he said. “As far as how we carry out the suggestions, the recommendations, I’m not sure that anybody has a clear vision of that at this time.”