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Texas prepares for a pandemic first: a jury trial by Zoom

by Reuters
Monday, 18 May 2020 11:00 GMT

By Nate Raymond

May 18 (Reuters) - With jury trials on hold throughout the United States because of the coronavirus pandemic, court officials in Texas are preparing to try something new: let jurors hear a case through Zoom.

Lawyers in an insurance dispute in Collin County District Court on Monday will present their case by videoconference, in what officials believe will be the first virtual jury trial to be held nationally amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The one-day trial, which will be streamed live on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/c/JudgeEmilyMiskel, is a so-called summary jury trial, in which jurors hear a condensed version of a case and deliver a non-binding verdict.

The parties, having seen how their case could fare before a jury in a full-blown trial, will then the next day sit for mediation and try to negotiate a settlement.

Officials say the abbreviated format and non-binding verdict make it ideal to test the viability of holding jury trials remotely, as they grapple with the more daunting challenge of how to conduct them safely in person during the pandemic.

"You can't drag people down to the courthouse and make them sit together for days at a time," Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said in an interview. "It's just too dangerous."

Courts throughout the country have since March curtailed operations and limited in-person court hearings as states adopted stay-at-home orders and ordered businesses closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In 39 states and the District of Columbia, court systems on a statewide basis directed or encouraged judges to conduct hearings remotely by phone or videoconference, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Jury trials meanwhile came to a halt.

Monday's case, a dispute involving commercial property damage stemming from a wind and hail event in 2017, was originally set to go to trial in McKinney, Texas, in March.

While courts in many states are drawing up plans to resume operations, the question of how to hold in-person trials continues to boggle judges and court officials.

Ideas include spreading jurors out in a courtroom and requiring them and lawyers to wear masks. Even with these precautions, it is not clear how hundreds of people can be asked to show up for jury duty in cramped courthouses.

"It's just imponderable," Hecht said. "There are hundreds of people over the country studying how do we get back to jury trials."

Meanwhile, other courts are looking at moving more of their jury operations online. The Indiana Supreme Court on Wednesday said once jury trials resume in the state, parties in civil cases can agree to conduct them remotely. And in Arizona, the state's top court has said it will allow jurors to be selected remotely.

The move comes as courts face a growing backlog of cases. In 2019, Texas held an average of 186 jury trials per week, said David Slayton, the Texas Office of Court Administration's administrative director.

Whether virtual trials will be successful remains to be seen.

Judge Emily Miskel, whose courthouse will oversee Monday's trial, said the case could illuminate whether a "hybrid approach" is possible, in which jury selection is virtual and the remainder of the trial is conducted in person.

Slayton acknowledged that holding trials remotely presents challenges, including making sure jurors remain attentive and do not conduct research online. But those issues also exist with in-person trials and can be easily dealt with by a warning from the judge, he said.

"Obviously it's on video, so the judge can tell if jurors are washing dishes or doing something else," Slayton said. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Daniel Wallis)

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