Chicago Federal Court Limits New Jury Trials To 1 A Day

By Lauraann Wood
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Law360 (July 29, 2020, 10:30 PM EDT) -- The federal court in Chicago has set out a pandemic-era plan intended to limit the volume of jurors in the building, which includes allowing only one jury trial to begin per day, restricting the size of civil trial juries and barring attorneys from approaching the witness stand or pacing the courtroom. 

As the novel coronavirus continues to grip the country, judges in the Northern District of Illinois intend to conduct jury trials only when case dispositions such as continuances, bench trials, negotiated resolutions or mediations aren't possible, according to a trial plan summary the court recently published.

When jury trials are necessary, they'll be "conducted in a way that enables litigants to have a fair trial and protects the health and safety of jurors, litigants, court staff and the public," according to the plan.

Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer told Law360 in an emailed statement Thursday that the court's Re-start Taskforce developed the trial plan "after careful planning and consultation with medical experts and public health officials."

"The goal is to allow jury trials to be conducted in a way that enables litigants to have a fair trial and protects the health and safety of jurors, litigants, court staff, and the greater community," she said.

Civil jury trials will be limited to eight jurors "to allow adequate distancing in all or most regular courtrooms," but criminal trials will be conducted in courtrooms that can safely seat 12 jurors and alternates, according to the plan. The courtrooms have also been reconfigured to allow adequate spacing between jurors, attorneys, witnesses and courtroom staff, the plan says.

Only one jury trial can begin on any given day in an effort to minimize the number of potential jurors gathering at the courthouse at once, the plan says. Prospective jurors will be able to request service deferral for "legitimate pandemic-related reasons," and the court will pay their parking costs if they're reluctant use public transportation, it says.

As for counsel, they will not be allowed to approach witnesses or roam the courtroom during trial. Attorneys will instead be required to conduct all questioning either from the counsel table or a podium, and all exhibits will be displayed electronically via a computer or overhead projector, according to the trial plan. If a witness needs paper copies of exhibits, "they will have to be placed on the witness stand before the witness takes the stand," the memorandum says.

The pandemic has also put a halt to traditional sidebars, in which a judge and attorneys huddle together for discussions not meant for jurors' ears, according to the plan. Since those discussions can't be conducted consistently with social distancing measures, they'll require either sending the jury out of the courtroom for each sidebar or using white noise and headphones to prevent jurors from overhearing, the summary says.

"Some judges may avoid sidebars altogether," it says.

All trial participants and public observers will be required to wear face masks and follow other safety protocols aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19, the memorandum says. The court will give masks to jurors who arrive without them, and the trial judge "may make face shields available to empaneled jurors," according to the plan.

The court's jury assembly room has been reconfigured to allow social distancing and eliminate contact as prospective jurors enter and exit the room and wait to be taken to a courtroom, according to the plan. They'll also complete a written questionnaire of common questions to reduce the time they'd otherwise spend answering questions in the courtroom, the memorandum says.

The public will not be allowed in the courtroom during jury selection because navigating that process in a health- and space-conscious manner will require using the entire courtroom, according to the summary. The court will have an overflow room available on a different floor for those who'd like to follow along with jury selection, or trial proceedings in general if a courtroom's socially distanced seating is full, the plan says.

Courtrooms on the same floor as the trial will also be opened to allow for socially distanced jury breaks and deliberations, since the court's jury rooms aren't large enough, according to the plan. Extra witness waiting rooms will also be available for each trial, and each room will be limited to one occupant, the summary says.

--Editing by Breda Lund.

Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Judge Pallmeyer.

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