Court is back in session in Northeastern Minnesota.
As of Monday, jury trials were allowed to resume at the six courthouses of St. Louis, Carlton, Cook and Lake counties after the 6th Judicial District received formal approval of a safe reopening plan from the Minnesota Judicial Council.
“A foundation of the American justice system is the jury trial," Chief Judge Michael Cuzzo said in a statement. "Jury trials across the state of Minnesota have been postponed since mid-March as part of the battle to stop the spread of COVID-19. But now, the 6th Judicial District, in collaboration with our county and justice partners, have worked diligently to safely restart jury trials."
Jurors will notice some changes when they arrive at the courthouse. Everyone must wear a face covering inside judicial facilities; jurors arriving without one will be provided a paper mask each day.
Modifications have also been made to courtrooms, so that there is more distance between jurors. Floor markings and physical partitions have been added as needed in some areas.
In addition, due to limited public gallery space, the Judicial Branch said it will make accommodations for spectators to view proceedings remotely.
The first jury trials in the state resumed in a handful of counties under a pilot program in early June, with individual districts required to formulate plans that meet state guidelines for distancing, sanitization and a slew of other precautionary measures.
That includes everything from how and where groups or potential jurors are questioned during the voir dire phase to how a defendant can have a sidebar discussion with his or her attorney to the setup of the jury deliberation room.
The 6th District's local steering committee, chaired by Judge Sally Tarnowski, of Duluth, sought input from attorneys, court staff, county officials and others who have a regular presence in the courtroom.
"Our goal is to fulfill our obligation to administer justice, while protecting the health of our community members who are exercising and performing their duties, responsibilities and rights in our courthouses," Cuzzo said. "The most basic characteristic of an American jury trial — fairness to all participants — will be the same as ever."
Anyone receiving a jury summons should respond as required by law. Jury service has always been option for anyone over 70, and any juror can receive an automatic postponement of service if requested.
Anyone who has potentially been exposed to or is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 should delay service. People who are high risk, work in the medical field or are unable to travel home from another location can also request a postponement.
The Judicial Branch has set caps on the number of jurors called for each trial, with up to 50 for first-degree murder cases and only 14 for most civil trials. That could result in a longer selection process if additional jurors need to be called after the initial round of questioning.
Courts have also been advised to use questionnaires to screen jurors ahead of time, conduct orientation online and divide jury pools into small groups who arrive at the courthouse at staggered times, among other precautions.
"We are thankful for our citizen jurors, who are an indispensable part of that process," Cuzzo said. "Doing one's duty as a juror is always a selfless act of community service and patriotism. That has never been truer than it is right now.”
As they seek to address a five-month backlog, courts have largely prioritized major felony cases in which defendants have been unable to secure release from jail. Civil trials have yet to resume, as a statewide moratorium remains in place until Sept. 1.
Courts continue to carry on most daily calendars through Zoom videoconferencing, though some hearings, such as those with live testimony, may require the scheduling of in-person proceedings.