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Q&A: Texas judge on first Zoom jury trial conducted during pandemic

Nate Raymond  Reuters News

Nate Raymond  Reuters News

(Reuters) - With jury trials stalled throughout the United States because of the coronavirus pandemic, court officials in Texas this week tried for the first time nationally to hold a jury trial through the videoconferencing application Zoom.

Potential jurors in Collin County, Texas, on Monday logged in by laptop, smartphone and tablet from home for a so-called summary jury trial, in which jurors hear a condensed version of a case and deliver a non-binding verdict as part of an alternative dispute resolution proceeding.
Judge Emily Miskel helped oversee the trial, which involved a lawsuit alleging insurer State Farm of failing to honor its obligations to cover a building’s property damage caused by a 2017 storm. Miskel has served as judge of the 470th District Court since it was created in 2015 and is a member of the Computer & Technology Law Council for the State Bar of Texas.
She spoke with Reuters about the experience. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
REUTERS: How did the trial go?
MISKEL: It went better than we expected. When we look at how this could be extended to civil trials or even potentially criminal trials, I think there are still some challenges we haven’t yet solved, but I think it was a positive pilot that showed us jurors can appear remotely.
REUTERS: You spoke with jurors after the trial. What feedback did you receive?
MISKEL: They all liked it. There were a number of jurors who served on in-person juries in the past, and they preferred the online format. It was more efficient with their time, they didn’t have to drive to the courthouse and wait around for hours. They could also see the evidence and the witnesses better.
REUTERS: How realistic is it to expand using Zoom from summary jury trials with non-binding verdicts to civil and criminal trials generally?
MISKEL: The two areas that we need to carefully do more study on are the beginning and end of the trial. If you live in a rural place that doesn’t have reliable internet or do not have a device at home, we need to make sure you can still participate. And during deliberations, it would be a concern for everybody on how they would be able to get any technology problems resolved while maintaining the sanctity and privacy of jury deliberations. So does that mean we have a tech helper who is muted?
REUTERS: Did you have problems with the jurors?
MISKEL: We had some predictable tech problems, like when a juror dropped off the call and immediately got back on. I was being vigilant and numbered the jurors, so I could count my chickens. I don’t think that’s all that different than the kind of stuff we run into in the physical courtroom. Jurors fall asleep during trials. You can make their bodies physically be there, but if the attorneys aren’t engaging them, you can’t make them listen.
REUTERS: What’s the next step in Texas now that you have done this experiment?
MISKEL: I think we are going to test more pilot programs to give people more flexibility. Texas courts statewide are in the process of coming up with plans for how people could come back to courthouses after June 1. The Office of Court Administration is saying we have to require everyone to wear a mask, we must be cautious if they are here longer than an hour, so we have some significant difficulties with in-person proceedings being very good.

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