Despite reports from federal courts of in-person jury trials being held safely, many judges across the country are still deliberating whether to hold in-person jury trials at all.
In September, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts posted an article sharing judges’ accounts of in-person pandemic-era jury trial success stories in which precautions taken ensured participants’ safety. But as COVID-19 rages on, not every judge practicing on the front lines agrees moving forward with in-person trials is safe.
State and federal courts resumed jury trials at different paces, some doing so as early as June. But across the country, including in the huge Los Angeles federal system, battles are ensuing over safety and due process, representative juries and the overall fairness of altering a system never designed to withstand video appearances, mandatory masks, 6-feet social distancing and regular temperature checks.
Two days before the U.S. Courts posted the article about in-person trials, Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes the Central District of California, praised Central District Chief Judge Philip S. Gutierrez’s decision to keep jury trials off-limits, writing in a Sept. 8 letter to all Central District judges that resuming jury trials “prematurely” in other districts was “causing coronavirus spread.”
Thomas’ letter came amid litigation in which Gutierrez’s Central District colleague Judge Cormac J. Carney asked Gutierrez to summon a jury for an Oct. 13 trial of a physician accused of illegally supplying patients with drugs including oxycodone. Carney denied prosecutors’ pandemic-related request for a continuance, then dismissed the case with prejudice after Gutierrez declined his order to summon a jury. At press time, jury trials in the Central District remained suspended.”