Ga. Judge Promises To Strike 'Anti-Maskers' From Jury Pool

By Rosie Manins
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Law360 (October 28, 2020, 5:23 PM EDT) -- A Georgia federal judge said Wednesday he would immediately strike any "anti-maskers" from a jury pool during the coronavirus pandemic, including his own father-in-law, as the court prepares to resume trials in January.

U.S. District Judge William M. Ray II outlined the Northern District of Georgia's and his own pandemic-era efforts to make jury trials safe, during a pretrial conference in a restaurant worker's sexual harassment suit slated for trial in January. Top of his list is requiring masks be worn by everyone in the court when it's not their turn to speak, he said.

"If a juror says they're not going to wear a mask, I'm going to excuse them for cause, I think that's justified during the pandemic that we're dealing with," Judge Ray said during the conference. "I wear a mask everywhere I go. My father-in-law won't wear a mask anywhere, and I would strike him from a jury immediately. So if we have an anti-masker out there, then they're not going to be able to serve."

Other trial protocols the judge explained included the problem of lunch, which he said has become a major logistical issue for pandemic-era jury trials. Judge Ray said he'd like to avoid the problems of where jurors go for lunch, what they eat and whether it was provided by the court — food he said the jurors might deem lackluster — by skipping a lunch break altogether. His preference would be to instead take two 20-minute breaks between starting at 8 a.m. and finishing at 2 p.m.

"Once they get a hold of what we serve them they might not think that's a great option," Judge Ray said. "It makes for a long day, but long days are just kind of the nature of things for lawyers anyway. The advantage to [lawyers] is you have plenty of time in the afternoon to prepare for the next day without working too late into the night."

In the case at hand, former Atlanta restaurant worker Logan Williams is seeking $105,000 in back pay, damages and fees from Atlantis Restaurant and Lounge LLC and its owner Nana Addaquay, claiming she was fired for alleging that Addaquay sexually harassed her at work.

Judge Ray chastised counsel for not filing a proposed pretrial order until the last minute and told them to be ready to go in January at the latest. He said some of his scheduled criminal trials could be put off due to defendants' concerns about being unfairly blamed by jurors for their potential exposure to the virus.

Judge Ray said the court had worked with a virus expert, who is leading a coronavirus vaccine study at Emory University, to develop safe in-person jury trial procedures during a pandemic. He said the scientist emphasized the importance of face masks and the irrelevance of gloves.

"He places a lot of confidence in masks. He said if everyone wears masks we should be fine," Judge Ray said. "He said as long as your mask will prevent you from blowing out a candle then it's a good mask, no matter what it's made of, just FYI. But he doesn't place a lot of stock in people wearing gloves. He said that's really overkill, so we're not going to require gloves to be worn by anyone."

Witnesses will not be masked when giving testimony, because their facial expressions are important, but they will be shielded from everyone else in the court by plexiglass stands, the judge said.

"I think we've all come to the realization that we're not going to be able to outlast the COVID virus and we can't continue to delay at least some cases from going forward," Judge Ray said. "We want jurors to be comfortable."

He said jury selection will occur in a large ceremonial courtroom to ensure social distancing, and that trials will not overlap to reduce the overall number of people in the courthouse. All judges have reserved trial dates to avoid conflicting dates.

Judge Ray said lawyers will be farther from the jury than normal and confined when speaking to a lectern, unable to pace the room. All material should be electronically displayed, and the witness stand will have a computer attached so they can see items not yet accepted into evidence.

Jurors will be spaced out, and some may have to sit in the public gallery or on chairs in front of the jury box, Judge Ray said. And only one alternate juror will be selected, because if a juror becomes ill the trial will likely have to be scrapped anyway, he said.

The district court announced its plan to resume jury trials in January at the end of September.

Peach State courts are under a statewide judicial emergency order in response to the pandemic that has been renewed monthly since its implementation in March. Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton in early October lifted a suspension on jury trials in state court.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

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