Fed. Courts Suspend Jury Trials Again As COVID-19 Surges

By Emily Lever
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Law360 (November 20, 2020, 9:52 PM EST) -- Around the country, 25 U.S. district courts have ordered jury trials and grand juries suspended amid a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases, the federal judiciary announced Friday.

A high of over 187,000 new cases were diagnosed Thursday, largely putting a damper on efforts to reopen the federal court system's operations amid the coronavirus pandemic. A dozen more district courts have maintained existing suspensions, meaning over one-third of the 94 district courts have stopped convening juries.

"We were going through the positive stages of recovery, beginning jury trials in August and so forth, but there was another conversation going on all the time," Chief Judge James K. Bredar of the District of Maryland said in a statement. "We prepared a rollback template before we needed it and thought through the kinds of issues that we might face and need to deal with."

Bredar ordered a two-week suspension of in-person court proceedings in his state effective Nov. 16 and is mulling whether to extend that ban further.

"Our epidemiologist has taught me that in the context of COVID-19, it's not just the raw numbers that matter. It's the slopes of the curves," Bredar said. "Unfortunately, our numbers are up, and the slope of the curve is not good, whether it's hospitalizations, test positivity, even deaths."

In late April, the federal judiciary directed courts to reopen in-person proceedings gradually on a case-by-case basis while keeping an eye on infection and hospitalization rates in their districts. In a bid to deal with an increasing backlog, courts implemented social distancing, mandated masks, installed plexiglass screens and experimented with contact-tracing apps. One of the first in-person federal jury trials since the onset of the pandemic took place in June in the Northern District of Texas.

But many judges now feel public health imperatives should take priority over resolving cases expediently. Many of the districts that suspended jury trials were in the Northeast, the Midwest and the Plains — areas where the weather is becoming frigid and driving people indoors, where the virus circulates more easily. After some stable or improving statistics over the summer, the pandemic is worsening almost everywhere. Some judges said they were taking cues from public health officials across the country, who have specifically warned that the upcoming winter holidays and the travel and social gatherings associated with them may bring more infections.

"We have seen a large uptick in cases after each major event, and with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's coming, it was thought more prudent to suspend jury trials," John M. Domurad, clerk of court of the Northern District of New York, said in a statement. "We are actively encouraging doing other proceedings remotely."

To some, it is inherently challenging to hold in-person trials fairly because jury pools are stacked with people who are willing and able to attend an in-person indoor activity during a pandemic.

"Citizens' increasing inability and reluctance to serve on juries is understandable," Chief Judge D.P. Marshall Jr. of the Eastern District of Arkansas, said in a Nov. 6 order, "but it creates the possibility that our juries will not reflect a fair cross section of the Eastern District."

How long in-person trials are to be suspended varies by district and remains contingent on public health conditions, with Colorado and the Northern District of New York, among others, postponing trials into January.

"In order to resume jury trials, we will need to see the key health markers, as measured by the Colorado Department of Health, go down to acceptable levels," Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer of the District of Colorado said in a statement. "I am concerned that the markers will stay high for several months, despite recent efforts by the governor and metro-area mayors to put in place new restrictions."

--Editing by Breda Lund.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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