The head of the Connecticut Judicial Branch, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson, said Thursday that state courts will resume jury trials in November, but the process may be different as judicial officials grapple with the public health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seen as a key component of the state’s justice system, jury trials were quickly placed on hold as the pandemic spread in Connecticut this spring.
Now, as the Judicial Branch continues to expand services and reopen courthouses, it is looking to restart jury trials for both civil and criminal matters. Planning for a resumption of jury trials remains ongoing and a working group of judges and court operations staff anticipate to have a final report later this month.
“The stakes are extremely high, we understand that. We take it very seriously,” said Judge James W. Abrams, chief administrative judge for civil matters. “Someone who is willing to come in and serve as juror deserves to know their health and safety is going to be protected.”
Here’s what the judicial branch has planned and how the process will look during the pandemic:
Robinson said that the intention is to start jury trials in November. But the process to get to trial is lengthy, from scheduling to jury selection, among other preparations.
Abrams said in balancing current conditions, the hope is to actually hold jury trials this year .
“Assuming the infection rate in Connecticut stays where it is, I’m confident we will have a jury trial in 2020,” said Abrams, who co-chairs the working group of judges focused on resuming trials.
Early in the pandemic, as cases started to surface in Connecticut, top court officials put all new trials on hold on March 13. The decision allowed for ongoing trials to continue, or those that needed to meet the requirements of a granted motion for a speedy trial.
In mid-April, the judicial branch said that jury summonses were still going out to potential jurors, but that service had been canceled for all those who received a summons.
Abrams said that he believes that summonses may have already started to go out or will begin to go out shortly.
In the past, the process for selecting a jury can take several days in a civil matter, but potentially longer for a criminal trial.
“Because of COVID-considerations, we expect jury section will take twice as long than under normal circumstances,” Abrams said.
Judicial officials are continuing to weigh how to address individuals summoned to juries who have preexisting medical conditions that increase the danger of contracting COVID-19.
“Someone with morbidity factors is not going to be forced to come into the courthouse,” Abrams said.
Much planning has gone into how to keep everyone from jurors, lawyers, plaintiffs, defendants, court staff, judges and the public safe inside the courthouse during a trial.
Abrams said the Judicial Branch will continue to closely adhere to guidance from public health officials from social distancing to requirements for masks.
“The touchstone for us is the health and safety for everyone involved the trial and we are not taking any shortcuts with that,” he said.
Abrams and the other judges in the working group have been looking closely at all court facilities to better understand how to safely adhere to the guidelines.
“Each brings its own physical challenge,” he said, pointing to the differences in courthouses spread across Connecticut.
Considerations for what cases would get priority are still underway.
Abrams, who sits in Superior Court in New Haven, said in the past, the courthouse could support six trials running at the same time. With requirements brought on by the pandemic, the courthouse could handle half that number “because we need more space.”
Weighing on the discussions is the constitutional right to a speedy trial given to criminal defendants.
“Criminal is probably going to, by right, take the vanguard in when we restore jury trials,” Abrams said.
While in the past a trial may take place in one courtroom, judicial officials are considering using a whole floor of a courthouse to hold the trial. Abrams described situations under consideration where various parties are in separate courtrooms to adhere to social distancing guidelines and are brought together via videoconferencing.
“We have not as of yet completely rejected the possibility of doing the entire event remotely but at this point our focus is bringing people into the courthouse,” he said.
Abrams said the plan the branch is formulating is likely to adjust over time until a vaccine is available for COVID-19.
“This is going to be an ongoing process,” he said. “We are going to be tweaking this [plan] depending on so many different factors including how the disease is impacting everyone involved.”
Nicholas Rondinone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.