Minnesota weighs resumption of jury trials
The state is currently allowing litigants and members of the public to participate in or view hearings remotely, but getting juries back into courthouses will be a bigger challenge.
Minnesota will not see any jury trials in May, but a pilot program could begin testing the waters for a resumption of some proceedings as soon as June 1.
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea on Friday extended an order that was set to expire this weekend, barring any new jury pools from being assembled over the next four weeks in any of the state's courthouses. But the Minnesota Judicial Council has approved the program "to evaluate processes for criminal trials," which could be tested as soon as next month.
“It is our top priority to ensure that when more in-person courthouse activities resume, we are doing so in a safe and efficient manner,” Gildea said in a statement. “Minnesotans have a constitutional right to access justice through state courts and we are committed to making sure that that access does not involve unnecessary risk.”
No new jury trials have gotten underway in the state since mid-March , as health officials have urged people to stay home and avoid any gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. But with that prohibition now set to pass the two-month mark, attorneys and judges have said they expect to be dealing with a major backlog of cases when more proceedings are able to safely resume.
Of particular concern for public defenders and other advocates is defendants who remain in custody while awaiting a trial. Attorneys and judges have reevaluated conditions for release in many cases and jail officials have asked law enforcement agencies to limit arrests to those considered dangerous or unlikely to appear in court .
In St. Louis County, that has helped slash the total jail population to its lowest levels in decades — also alleviating some fears of the spread of the virus as has been seen in other correctional facilities, such as the Moose Lake prison. But more than 100 inmates remained in the jail on Friday afternoon, the vast majority in pretrial custody awaiting a trial or other hearings.
Finding a way to resume jury proceedings is considered one of the bigger challenges for courts. Jury pools can often exceed 50 people, who assemble in a lounge and cram shoulder-to-shoulder into courtroom benches for the jury selection process. Other jurisdictions have tested options such as video conferring for jury trials, but that can lead to constitutional and logistical issues.
Minnesota Judicial Branch spokeswoman Alyssa Siems Roberson said the Judicial Council, the policy-making body of the courts system, is just beginning discussions with jury program managers in all 87 counties, along with a work group that has been established to prepare for the eventual resumption of some courthouse activities.
It remains to be seen what measures may be tested in Minnesota after June 1.
"These pilots will be developed with the input of the counties participating in the pilot, the Minnesota Department of Health, local public health officials and justice partners," Siems Roberson wrote in an email to the News Tribune.
Courthouses currently remain open for limited purposes, with in-person appearances restricted to necessary personnel in hearings for bail review, pleas, sentencings, evictions, civil commitments and emergency actions in custody or guardianship cases.
Most of those hearings, and all other proceedings that are continuing, are being held remotely over video using applications such as Zoom and WebEx. Judges, attorneys and litigants can participate from home, while in-custody defendants are able to appear from hearing rooms set up in jails and prisons.
The Judicial Branch said members of the public also will have an opportunity to view proceedings in at least some cases going forward. A resource page has been set up at mncourts.gov/remote-hearings .