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San Diego courts grapple with issues over resuming jury trials in COVID-19 era

Space considerations will also affect the number of trials that can be conducted at any given time.

SAN DIEGO — Jury trials could resume in San Diego County as soon as June 15, though many questions remain on how to conduct public court proceedings safely for all involved, particularly with the large number of people needed for the jury selection process, a group of local judges said Wednesday.

San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge Lorna A. Alksne said the latest orders from the state have delayed California jury trials until June 15, though she expected trials would likely not begin until sometime after that date.

During a "State of the Superior Court Address" held online, Alksne said a growing backlog of criminal trials will take priority over other types of cases when trials resume, but questions regarding the when and how loom large.

San Diego Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge Michael T. Smyth said abiding by public health orders would present numerous issues when it comes to protecting the health of all involved, particularly with bringing large groups of the public into county courthouses.

Referencing the downtown San Diego courthouse, Smyth said maintaining proper social distancing is a major issue, as almost all its courtrooms can only seat four jurors in the jury box, with the remaining panelists needing to be spaced out in the seating areas typically used by the media and the general public.

Gathering a sufficient pool of potential jurors for all ongoing trials, which can number well into the hundreds on any given day, creates other issues as far as seating prospective jurors in the jury lounge, and conducting the jury selection process.

Space considerations will also affect the number of trials that can be conducted at any given time.

Alksne said other jurisdictions have discussed renting out movie theaters and other large venues, but that is unlikely to occur in San Diego County.

The process of sending out jury duty summons is random by design to draw a fair representative cross-section of the community, but maintaining that standard while taking note of public health concerns will be challenging as some jurors are bound to be more susceptible to COVID-19 than others.

Alksne said there were concerns about prospective jurors who are senior citizens, or who would be forced to take public transportation in order to make it to court.

Smyth said supplemental questionnaires may have to be included in jury duty summons to ask prospective jurors about their health, but the logistics and manner of doing so remain a question.

During the jury selection process, prospective jurors often cite economic and work-related issues to explain why they should be excluded from serving, but Smyth questioned whether jurors could be excused solely because they fear they might be exposed to COVID-19 in the courthouse.

"Can we excuse them for that? Should any action be taken against a juror if they simply refuse to serve without what we think is a sufficient explanation?" Smyth asked.

Smyth said a task force comprised of judges, attorneys and others dubbed the Jury Trial Work Group has been formed to tackle these questions and present recommendations regarding the "dozens, maybe even hundreds of issues we'll face in planning for and conducting (of) jury trials."

"This task force will hopefully be able to address as many of those (issues) as possible in trying to ensure the correct balance between the defendant's rights to a fair, just trial, the people's rights to the same thing, and to the safety of the community, all of our jurors, our court staff, our judges, attorneys," Smyth said. "We want to keep people safe in a real sense, but also we want them to feel like they are safe, that we are taking all the precautions that we are able to take." 

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