(Reuters) - Federal courts seeking to resume jury trials amid the coronavius pandemic should buy face masks for those in attendance, ask potential jurors about their exposure to the virus and consider conducting jury selection virtually, a judiciary group recommended in a report released on Wednesday.
A subgroup of the COVID-19 Judiciary Task Force whose members are mostly federal judges provided guidance for how the 94 district courts should individually decide to resume jury trials and convene grand juries in a 16-page report.
Jury trials have largely been on hold throughout the federal court system since mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted states to issue stay-at-home orders, close schools and order businesses to shutdown to reduce the spread of the disease.
While courts have been able to conduct many hearings through videoconferences and by phone, court officials have struggled with how to conduct jury trials – the right to which is constitutionally guaranteed – while promoting social distancing.
The report by the subgroup, which also has representatives from the U.S. Justice Department and federal defender community, said when each district court nationwide decides the time is right, “the judiciary must reconstitute jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The report provided only guidance for federal courts to follow to resume jury trials, saying there “is no one-size fits all approach, and not all of the suggestions will be necessary, practical, or feasible in all districts.”
The report recommends courts provide jurors “reasonable assurance of their safety,” including by posting information on each court’s website about safety measures and sending prospective jurors a document providing the same information.
The report said courts should plan for a “lower yield from the jury pool during the pandemic” due to health, unemployment and childcare issues and should also consider conducting jury selection virtually when possible.
Courts must determine how much personal protective equipment they need for the public, attorneys, witnesses and jurors and consider whether to provide face masks or allow jurors to bring their own, “recognizing the risks involved in outside PPE,” the report said.
As it is unclear “whether there will be any successful national procurement for any PPE or other mitigation tools,” the report recommends courts buy these items locally through their local budgets for consumable disposable supplies.
Courts should also consider screening potential jurors for exposure to COVID-19 by requiring them to complete a questionnaire by mail asking if they or anyone they are close to have had the virus and recovered from it, the report said.
The report also recommended courts use the largest courtrooms or multiple ones with video connections to promote social distancing.
The number of jury trials being conducted at one time in a courthouse should be limited and jurors’ spaces should be deep cleaned each day, it also said.
The task force subgroup’s members include 10 federal judges and is chaired by U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad in Charlotte, North Carolina. U.S. Attorney G. Zach Terwilliger of the Eastern District of Virginia served as the Justice Department’s representative.