Texas tries a pandemic first: a jury trial by Zoom

FILE PHOTO: A view of the jury box in court room 422 of the New York Supreme Court at 60 Centre Street

With jury trials on hold throughout the United States because of the coronavirus pandemic, court officials in Texas are trying something new: let jurors hear a case through Zoom.

Lawyers in an insurance dispute in Collin County District Court on Monday picked a jury to hear the case by videoconference, in what officials believe is the first virtual jury trial to be held nationally amid the COVID-19 crisis.

More than two dozen potential jurors logged in by smartphone, laptop and tablet for jury selection, which was streamed live on YouTube here with a judge occasionally providing tech advice on how to best use their devices.

The one-day trial is a so-called summary jury trial, in which jurors hear a condensed version of a case and deliver a non-binding verdict.

The parties, having seen how their case could fare before a jury in a full-blown trial, will sit down for mediation and try to negotiate a settlement on Tuesday.

Officials say the abbreviated format and non-binding verdict make it ideal to test the viability of holding jury trials remotely, as they grapple with the more daunting challenge of how to conduct them safely in person during the pandemic.

“You can’t drag people down to the courthouse and make them sit together for days at a time,” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said in an interview. “It’s just too dangerous.”

Courts throughout the country have since March curtailed operations and limited in-person court hearings as states adopted stay-at-home orders and ordered businesses closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In 39 states and the District of Columbia, court systems on a statewide basis directed or encouraged judges to conduct hearings remotely by phone or videoconference, according to the National Center for State Courts. But jury trials came to a halt.

Monday’s case, a lawsuit accusing the insurer State Farm of failing to honor its obligations to cover property damage to a building caused by a 2017 storm, was originally set to go to trial in McKinney, Texas, in March.

Even as courts in many states draw up plans to resume operations, judges and court officials have questioned how to safely conduct in-person trial proceedings.

Ideas include spreading jurors out in a courtroom and requiring them and lawyers to wear masks. Even with these precautions, it is not clear how hundreds of people can be asked to show up for jury duty in cramped courthouses.

“It’s just imponderable,” Hecht said. “There are hundreds of people over the country studying how do we get back to jury trials.”

The Indiana Supreme Court said last week that once jury trials resume in the state, parties in civil cases can agree to conduct them remotely. And in Arizona, the state’s top court has said it will allow jurors to be selected remotely.

The moves come as courts face a growing backlog of cases. In 2019, Texas held an average of 186 jury trials per week, said David Slayton, the Texas Office of Court Administration’s administrative director.

Whether virtual trials will be successful remains to be seen.

Judge Emily Miskel, whose courthouse is overseeing Monday’s trial, said the case could illuminate whether a “hybrid approach” is possible, in which jury selection is virtual and the remainder of the trial is conducted in person.

Slayton acknowledged that holding trials remotely presents challenges, including making sure jurors remain attentive and do not conduct research online. But those issues also exist with in-person trials and can be easily dealt with by a warning from the judge, he said.

“Obviously it’s on video, so the judge can tell if jurors are washing dishes or doing something else,” Slayton said.

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