In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the CARES Act in March 2020 to allow federal courts to conduct most routine court proceedings by telephone and video hookups. Since then, several courts have conducted virtual bench trials which do not require a jury and some courts have even held virtual civil jury trials.
The Western District of Washington, the Middle District of Florida, and the District of Minnesota have already conducted virtual civil jury trials with jurors serving from their homes. The federal trial courts in Rhode Island and Kansas are currently planning their first civil jury trials.
Under the CARES Act, the judiciary will end most electronic proceedings after the pandemic emergency is declared to be over. However, judges in many jurisdictions are advocating for continuing virtual court procedures even after the pandemic.
Western District of Washington
The Western District of Washington started virtual civil jury trials in September 2020, which piloted the Zoom civil jury trial for many other states.
Of the four virtual trials that have already occurred, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman has presided over two of them. Regarding the virtual jury trial experience, Judge Pechman said: “Video jury trials are a tool that can be used, and it’s a tool we need to use unless we are going to be backed up forever and ever. It has worked better than my initial expectations, all the way around. The jurors have been very, very diligent. They’ve cleared themselves of distractions and worked hard to pay attention.”
Judge Pechman initially worried that the required computer equipment might skew the jury pool by reducing the number of elderly and low-income jurors. However, the court addressed this by training jurors who needed computer skills and lending computers to those who did not have equipment.
Judge Pechman also debriefed each juror about their experience: “We asked if you feel like you can pay attention while you’re sitting in your own home. The jurors overwhelmingly said yes. I know the lawyers would say this guy was sitting in his laundry room, and this lady was sitting on her bed, but the point is, we invaded their house, and they found the best space they could in order to pay attention.”
Judge Pechman noted other benefits such as reduced costs and decreased travel time for jurors, attorneys, and witnesses.
After her experiences, Judge Pechman now advocates for continuing virtual civil trials even after the pandemic: “I have no backlog. Every single case I had set in 2020 got tried in 2020. I tell my fellow judges this may be the only way the wheels of justice will still turn.”
On February 5, 2021, the Western District of Washington hosted a how-to seminar for virtual trials which attracted more than 900 participants from more than 60 district courts.
Middle District of Florida
Judge Mary Scriven of the Middle District of Florida also highly recommends extending virtual court procedures beyond the pandemic after her experience presiding over a five-day virtual civil trial in late January 2021: “It flowed seamlessly from jury selection through deliberations. I would do it again in a heartbeat, and I highly recommend the virtual trial procedure to other judges in the District facing a backlog of civil cases due to the pandemic.”
She noted that the jurors especially appreciated “the ability to see the exhibits and see and hear the witnesses clearly because everything was magnified on the screen.”
District of Rhode Island
The suspended jury trials and in-person proceedings during the pandemic will create a backlog for the courts once they do reopen. However, judges recognize that virtual civil trials present an opportunity to address the backlog now.
The District of Rhode Island Chief Judge John McConnell addressed the backlog of cases: “When we realized that once we are able to conduct trials again, we’re going to have to prioritize criminal trials and we aren’t likely this year to get to in-person civil jury trials, we didn’t think it was appropriate not to offer litigants their Seventh Amendment right for that long.”
In response, the federal trial court in Rhode Island is currently preparing for its first virtual civil jury trial. The Rhode Island district court almost held its first virtual civil jury trial recently, but the parties settled the day before trial.
District of Massachusetts
U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani from the District of Massachusetts has presided over two virtual trials. Judge Talwani observed benefits such as jurors being able to see the witnesses’ full faces on a screen 18 inches away instead of an obstructed angle from a witness box. Furthermore, Judge Talwani noted the increased convenience for all parties: “For these parties, the difference of not having to travel here was enormous. To be able to do all of that without everyone having to spend the travel time worked very well. If people are cost-conscious, it would make a huge difference.”
Harris County Civil Court in Texas
Judge Tanya Garrison of the Harris County Civil Court in Texas also discussed the benefits of virtual court and expressed that she observed. She specifically commented on the increased efficiency of hearings, monetary and time savings for clients, decreased hassle and frustration, ease of accommodating witnesses, virtual depositions, and a positive impact on settlement hearings for minors since parents do not need to take time off work.
District of Minnesota
The District of Minnesota’s Chief Judge John Tunheim explained that Minnesota will continue holding Zoom trials for civil court cases after the pandemic due to the plethora of benefits including decreased costs, increased convenience, a decrease in the criminal case backlog, allowing trials to proceed despite Minnesota’s varying weather conditions, and ensuring that the jury pools reflect a diverse cross-section of the community. To learn more about the Minnesota judicial system’s opinion of virtual trials, please read “Judicial Changes in Minnesota Due to COVID-19”
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