Covid-19 and Jury Trials

By Ron Etemi, Esq.

Earlier this year, I was interviewed by the law tribune about the suspension of jury trials in Connecticut, and how we best could open the courts for jury trials. For me, restarting jury trials is important for three distinct reasons: First, the right to a jury trial is sacred, and is enshrined in our State Constitution.  Our Constitution affirmatively states: The right of a trial by jury shall remain inviolate. Second, the jury trial marks the conclusion of an injury victim’s case, and the ultimate opportunity to obtain justice. Third, the presence of the jury trial on the civil calendar is a guiding force for all parties involved in litigation. Specifically, the fact that there is a date certain for a jury trial has an interesting way of motivating the litigants to come to the table and attempt pre-trial resolution of the case.

Given my desire to push for a jury trial restart, I proposed certain options, including social distancing, employing the use of video conferencing, and other methods to reduce the risk of infection.

In September, 2020, I was therefore excited to hear that the courts would begin civil jury trials on November 2, 2020. I was cautiously optimistic: this was our opportunity to get things back on track. The plan, as I heard it, was for the courthouses to employ the use of multiple court rooms for single jury trials. In essence, one court room could be used for jury deliberation, while another for testimony, and another for voir dire. Given that a single trial would employ the use multiple court rooms, it was expected that the trial calendar would move at a snail’s pace and, in certain court houses, one could probably expect one trial a month.

My cautious optimism gave way to harsh reality. Because of the rising Covid-19 infection rates in Connecticut recently, judicial officials announced this week that the plan to restart jury trials is postponed indefinitely. A spokesperson for the judicial branch said: “The plan has been put on hold indefinitely and will be reassessed weekly.”  Although my hopes of a jury trial restart are momentarily dashed, I feel compelled to at least offer reasonable and safe options for our courts to commence jury trials as early as January 1, 2021. 

Here's Our Proposal for a Jury Trial Restart:

  1. Option 1: Video Jury Trials. This would be accomplished by creating “jury rooms” in a particular court house. These jury rooms would be small/large conference rooms, retrofitted with audio/video conferencing capabilities. Each selected jury will be assigned to a jury room and, as such, will be sequestered in such room  during the trial. Attorneys, and the Court, could employ web-conferencing to conduct the particulars of trial, from opening statement to closing argument. This option is the most ambitious, but also seemingly could allow for a high volume of completed jury trials.
  2. Option 2: Live Jury Trials.  This appears to be the approach the State is exploring. This would emulate a live jury trial, except masks and social distancing would be mandated. To enforce social distancing, multiple courtrooms would be employed, to allow sufficient space for all parties involved (lawyers, court personnel, jurors).  This option would appear to produce slower movement in the civil jury trial docket.
  3. Option 3: Mixture of Options 1 and 2.  With this option, the courts would maximize efficiency by using court house space to house more jurors (more trials), and move the parties, court-staff, and lawyers elsewhere to operate via remote video conferencing. The expectation is that if could house more sequestered jurors in the courthouse, we could hold more trials. Because we handle depositions via remote video conferencing, it is possible to examine trial witnesses in such a way. This option may propose the highest efficiency of all other options, and lead to the fastest moving jury docket.
Safety from infection is of high importance, as it should be. At the same time, the damage done to injury victims, and frankly all litigants, by the suspension of jury trials is of great magnitude. My hope as that we can all come together and rally behind an effort to safely restart jury trials as soon as possible.