As America watches the Minnesota criminal trial of Derek Chauvin, we have all noticed changes in the courtroom due to the COVID-19 pandemic–such as the large amount of plexiglass. In a recent Law360 interview, the District of Minnesota’s Chief Judge John Tunheim discussed the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the judicial process and how those changes may continue beyond the pandemic.
Chief Judge Tunheim explained during the interview that the District of Minnesota will continue holding Zoom trials for civil court cases even after the pandemic restrictions are lifted due to the multitude of benefits the court has seen. Those benefits include relieving the backlog of criminal trials, allowing trials to proceed despite the unpredictable Minnesota weather, and ensuring that jury pools more accurately reflect a diverse cross-section of the community.
Minnesota’s Virtual Civil Courts
Chief Judge Tunheim explained that in the District of Minnesota jury trials and in-person hearings will resume on May 3, 2021 after jurors return on May 1. However, Chief Judge Tunheim said that he, along with many other judges, will still do as many hearings and bench trials as possible via Zoom — partly in order to decrease the amount of people coming to the courthouse.
However, Chief Judge Tunheim noted that Minnesota will likely not get to its plethora of civil cases right away due to the substantial backlog of criminal trials. Currently, only two courtrooms are being used for in-person court proceedings–one in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul. This obviously makes it difficult to expedite the judicial process. Chief Judge Tunheim hopes to clear out the backlog of criminal trials by using Zoom for civil trials.
The master trial calendar from May 3 until the end of December 2021 states that there will only be two cases tried at a time and priority will be given to criminal cases since criminal cases cannot be tried virtually. However, Chief Judge Tunheim is hopeful that later in the summer access to the courts will have expanded, allowing more courtrooms to open. This is largely dependent on how comfortable jurors feel about sitting next to each other.
For all civil trials, the court is offering the option for a virtual civil jury using Zoom. It is only an option–not an obligation. However, judges are strongly encouraging lawyers to agree to a virtual jury trial.
Pros and Cons of Virtual Civil Trials
Chief Judge Tunheim emphasized the convenience and decreased costs of virtual trials. For instance, attorneys and witnesses do not have to fly across the country and pay for transportation and lodging to participate in the trial. This can result in trials occurring faster. However, there is extra work involved in virtual trials such as making sure that all jurors have access to the necessary technology, making sure that they have a stable Internet connection, making sure that they are comfortable using the technology, and having a courtroom deputy serve as a jury minder during the trial to assist the virtual civil jury.
It is important to note that authority has not been given to conduct criminal trials virtually, and so virtual trials only apply to civil cases. Currently, there is a criminal case backlog of 20 to 25 criminal cases pending in the District of Minnesota and 30% of criminal defendants have not authorized videoconferencing for their hearings (pretrial hearings, change of pleas and sentencing hearings). An estimated half of those 20 to 25 cases will go to trial. Chief Judge Tunheim explained that there is a larger number of civil cases in the backlog because a firm trial date is a very important part of the settlement process, and it is currently unclear when most trials will occur.
Virtual Civil Trials After the Pandemic?
Chief Judge Tunheim cited the non-pandemic related benefits of virtual civil trials such as being able to try cases during the unpredictable Minnesota winters, less expensive lodging and transportation costs for jurors, lawyers, and witnesses, a better cross-section of the community being represented in jury pools, and allowing a broader public audience to see the judicial system in action.
Zoom trials allow juries to encompass a broader portion of the community because the virtual alternative eliminates a lot of the reasons jurors may have been unable to participate before such as having children at home, running a small business, having farm duties, living multiple hours away, or using a wheelchair.
Chief Judge Tunheim emphasized that the state of Minnesota has purchased technology equipment to make sure that all jurors have access to the necessary technology, know how to use it, and have a stable Internet connection.
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