A return to normalcy may also mean a return to jury duty

Courtroom Gavel
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The Louisiana Supreme Court has lifted a COVID-19-related moratorium on jury trials and is granting judges across the state permission to hold in-person trials in April. Louisianians called to report for jury duty should expect to find a court system committed to keeping them safe, Chief Justice John Weimer said in a March 12 press release.

It is imperative that members of the public feel safe in returning to our courthouses for jury duty. Serving as a juror is one of the most important civic responsibilities to be undertaken by our citizens, and it is the courts’ responsibility to ensure their safety,”  Weimer said. He called jurors “the most important people in the courthouse because without them, our system of justice simply cannot work.”

“In the past year, courts have used video technology to conduct certain legal proceedings virtually,” Chief Justice Weimer said. “In the current phase, with the introduction of vaccine options, it is prudent to the judicial process that we adopt practices that allow us to serve the public in person.”

The state Supreme Court’s first order giving lower courts permission to suspend jury trials was issued March 16, 2020, and like so many orders of that time, it was written in a way that suggested that such a pause could be short-lived. “All jury trials, both civil and criminal, scheduled to commence in any Louisiana state court between the date of this Order and March 27, 2020, are hereby continued to a date to be reset by local order no earlier than March 30, 2020.”

Similar to the governor’s orders that have had the effect of extending emergency orders, the state Supreme Court had issued multiple orders giving courts permission to not convene jury trials.   

Even so, 10 jurisdictions in the state have managed to have at least one jury trial over the past year, Loren Lampert, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said by phone Tuesday.  “We’re not going (into it) cold,” he said. “We do have experiences” about the best ways trials should be conducted during an ongoing pandemic.

The lifting of the mandate is not an order to empanel juries, Lampert said.  It’s giving permission to courts “if they are prepared.”

He said a top priority is putting potential jurors at ease. “Obviously precautions should be in place for everybody,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to wonder if that’s going to happen.”

In the state Supreme Court’s press release, Chief Justice Weimer says that the court consulted with Joseph Kanter, who serves as Louisiana’s public health officer and with Louisiana State Epidemiologist Theresa Sokol and shared what those two experts said with lower court judges.

The year-long delay in jury trials cannot be used by defendants to accuse the state of not speedily bringing them to trial..  The state Supreme Court issued an order in March 2020 that the continuances caused by the pandemic  “shall be excluded from speedy trial computations.”

Lampert said different courts will likely use different methods of jury selection, depending on their size.  Some may elect to use larger venues such as gymnasiums and community centers to give potential jurors space to spread out or in lieu of calling in groups of 200 or 300 people at a time, bringing them in in smaller groups of about 25.

The Louisiana Public Defenders Office did not respond to a request for comment, but Lampert said that public defenders, state sheriffs and the judiciary have all been actively engaged in discussions about the safest and most efficient way to conduct trials. “Everybody has stepped up to the plate,” he said. “Everybody is interested in doing it the right way, and I’m sure we will.”

In the past, jailed defendants and witnesses have often been transported or summoned to court for hearings and trials that potentially could happen but often don’t, Lampert said.   There will be a concerted effort not to bring anyone to court unnecessarily, he said.

He also predicted that prosecutors will work to screen out as many cases as they can with plea deals and that they will prioritize defendants who are locked up so they’re not “languishing in the local jail.”

Violent crime, especially murder, increased dramatically in 2020, not just in Louisiana but also across the entire country.  Because of the dramatic increase, courts will have an incredibly long docket of cases to go through, Lampert said. “The backlog is phenomenal.”

As for those who take the witness stand, Lampert said, the preference will be to have them not to wear masks but face shields so jurors can better read their faces as they testify.