JUDICIAL DIVISION

Judges describe their return to jury trials amid pandemic

July 6, 2020

Presiding over a courtroom during the COVID-19 pandemic means making sure everyone – jurors, lawyers, witnesses and courtroom staff – stays safe and healthy at every turn during the trial.

Judges must think creatively to ensure their courtrooms' compliance with social distancing and other safety guidelines.

Judges must think creatively to ensure their courtrooms' compliance with social distancing and other safety guidelines.

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Judge Barbara Lynn, chief judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, and Judge Amos Mazzant, a United States District Court judge for the Eastern District of Texas, have held several in-person civil and criminal trials in recent weeks. They shared their experiences in a Zoom program called “Return to Jury Trials During the Pandemic,” sponsored by the ABA Judicial Division.

The first task was a big one: Making sure the courtrooms were in compliance with safety guidelines. The judges said they had to think through how to keep everyone at least 6 feet apart, even when moving from room to room, and provide face masks or shields and gloves. Plexiglas shields on wheels that could be moved around the courtroom were a big help, as was extensive cleaning and sanitizing of all surfaces.

Judge Lynn said she asked jurors to take their temperature at home each morning and report the results when they arrived. “We did not have the capacity to do daily testing … frankly we just couldn’t afford it.”

Both judges said they had no trouble getting plenty of prospective jurors, and both chose to sequester jurors during the day, bringing in lunch to avoid potential exposure to the virus in a restaurant. “Í discouraged them from going out in the evening during the trial, but I don’t know whether they complied,” Lynn said.

Mazzant said he ordered everyone to wear face masks or shields during a criminal trial, but not for a civil trial, which had fewer participants. “I know there a lot of people in our community that don’t want to (wear masks),” Lynn said. “But I impressed upon them the need to keep each other safe.”

For the foreseeable future, judges are going to have to think creatively about what can be done remotely while still satisfying constitutional considerations, the judges said.

“It may be a long time, if ever, that we get back to the good old days,” Lynn said.

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