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Judges foresee host of challenges when jury trials resume

May 25. 2020

After Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, recovery included many expected challenges, such as rebuilding homes and finding food, plus one not-so-ordinary issue: restoring trials with diverse jury pools.

Nannette Jolivette Brown saw it firsthand as a lawyer in New Orleans. Today, she is chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and she is worried that finding diverse juries during and after the COVID-19 pandemic could be equally difficult.

Once in-person trials resume, protecting jurors from the coronavirus inside the courthouse will be critical.

Once in-person trials resume, protecting jurors from the coronavirus inside the courthouse will be critical.

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She shared her concerns with nearly 500 lawyers and judges during a webinar May 18 sponsored by the American Bar Association Judicial Division. The program explored several issues on how to resume jury trials, from how to summon and question jurors to how to get them into courthouses safely.

Brown advised participants not to automatically exclude jurors because they have pandemic issues. “Be thoughtful about what you’re asking,” she said. “Make sure that you’re following up and you’re not just eliminating people from the jury pool because they may be of a certain age or they may be in a high-risk category or they may be taking care of children… You have to get a fair cross-section of the community.”

Judge Heather Welch of Marion County Superior Court in Indianapolis agreed: “It’s going to be critical that you ensure that you have a cross-section of the people in your community, so that there are jurors of the litigant’s peers. While ordinarily in healthy times we get very diverse juries… we just don’t know how that will happen when we actually try a jury trial.”

Once in-person trials resume, protecting jurors from the coronavirus inside the courthouse is critical, said Melanie Gilbert, chief of the Facilities and Security Office within the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. That will include creating protocols for such things as wearing masks, limiting the number of people in elevators and taking temperatures of everyone as they enter the building. “It is a huge challenge,” she said.

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