Well, count me among the shocked.
This week, the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut did what I thought would be impossible. It found jurors ready, willing and able to sit on a jury trial. Evidence began this morning, in the case of Amica v. Coan, Trustee, in the courtroom of District Judge Victor Bolden. I saw some of the proceedings with my own eyes, on Zoom.
I believe it is the first jury trial to take place in Connecticut since mid-March, when the Covid-19 pandemic roared into our lives.
This trial doesn’t look like a pre-pandemic trial. Jurors are scattered throughout the spectator’s gallery. The witness sits in the back row of the jury box. Everyone but the witness testifying is wearing a mask. Apparently, only trial participants are permitted in the courtroom. If you want to watch the proceedings, you must sit in another courtroom, and watch a video feed.
The normal intimacy of a jury trial, something a akin to a dinner party, gives way to the more sterile feel of a meat locker.
But the point here is that a jury was selected.
I’m told by one of the lawyers trying the case, that jury summons were sent out to scores of people. Yesterday, some 64 venire people were cued up to discuss, via Zoom, whether they had a scheduling conflict or other concern that would prevent them from serving.
As of 5:30 p.m. yesterday, the judge had spoken to 34 of these folks. The potential jurors had called in from home, their voices and images transported into the courtroom. Nineteen of these folks indicated a willingness to return to court today, where they would be questioned about the sort of case on which they would actually be asked to hear. The plan was to gather 8 actual jurors from this group.
But here’s the kicker.
Of the 34 people questioned by the judge yesterday, only two expressed serious reservations about jury service due to the Covid-19 virus. That’s two out of 34 people.
What shocks me about this is that news reports still suggest that the risk of infection is great. Indeed, I saw a headline this morning mentioning as many as 100,000 more deaths in the United States in the next six months. Public health professionals worry aloud about an apocalyptic fall, with a joint flu-viral pandemic raging. My own doctor advises that staying out of public is the preferred course.
I don’t plan to attend a jury trial any time soon, and won’t do so until my physician clears me. (Full disclosure: I’m 65 years old but otherwise in fine health. I concede that age may be a factor for me, but, obviously, not for everyone.)
There is a tremendous pent up demand for jury trials just now. The civil and criminal justice systems depend on the threat of trial to force litigants to the bargaining table. It’s hard to get people to focus on compromise when they aren’t faced with the zero-sum possibility of a verdict.
My hunch is that, at least in Connecticut, judges will look at Judge Bolden’s experience in Amica v. Coan and conclude that it’s time to re-open the courts and to return to something like business as usual. Sure, precautions will be taken. It takes several courtrooms to do the work that could be done in one pre-pandemic courtroom – courtrooms weren’t constructed with social distancing in mind. But, let's face it, most courtrooms in most courthouses are vacant most of the time even when there is no pandemic.
I’ve heard that New Britain has a state court criminal trial teed up for early November.
I’m a trial lawyer, and I’ve enjoyed my career in courtrooms – for the most part. But I’m not ready to return, at least not any time soon. By the looks of things in Bridgeport this week, it doesn’t look as though I’m going to have much choice in the matter. And least not for much longer.
Ready or not, here we go.