North Dakota, Minnesota courts get creative in resuming jury trials as coronavirus keeps spreading
FARGO — In Cass County courtrooms, pieces of tape mark where juror chairs should be placed to keep them 6 feet apart, some of which are outside the traditional jury box.
It’s one of many preparations Cass County Courthouse staff have taken over the last several weeks to start jury trials on Tuesday, July 14, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everything we're doing is designed so that, irregardless, you can always maintain social distancing,” said Judge Frank Racek, who presides over the East Central Judicial District.
The North Dakota Supreme Court allowed jury trials to resume July 1 , more than three months after Chief Justice Jon Jensen suspended them in March. Courts across the state have been finding unique ways to hold trials while keeping people safe.
In Minnesota, some counties have started holding jury trials, but only after they have completed a checklist of guidelines that will help prevent the virus' spread. It’s possible Clay County could start holding trials by the end of the month, staff said.
Like North Dakota, Minnesota counties must conduct extensive planning before holding trials, Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said. Every county must have a plan in place by Sept. 1 to resume trials, she said.
Some counties are sharing ideas with others, which can then be adapted to fit individual court needs, she added.
“So much of what we do in the judiciary is balancing, and we are doing that in this circumstance as well,” Gildea said. “We think that the plan that we have put in place has allowed us to strike that delicate balance.”
At least 3,500 jury trials were scheduled through July in North Dakota district courts, with a large portion coming from delays due to the coronavirus, Jensen said in late June. Courts across the state have done a great job at helping people who need to go through the justice system, Jensen said, but they are not operating at 100%.
“We need to get closer to that 100% to make sure we’re there for folks that have disputes that need to be resolved,” he said.
Different experience for jurors
During normal times, dozens of defendants sit in Cass County courtrooms on a daily basis, waiting for their names to be called for a hearing.
During the last several months, courtrooms have remained largely empty, save the judge, attorneys and court staff. Defendants sometimes appear via electronic means.
Racek said his staff has done its best to continue with judicial procedures during this unprecedented time. "We have a building that was never designed for this particular problem," Racek said of the pandemic.
During the jury selection process, dozens — sometimes more than 100 — residents are brought into courthouses to find an impartial panel. It may take longer to get enough jurors while maintaining social distancing guidelines, especially if jurors need to come in multiple smaller groups, Jensen said.
Courtroom 302, the largest in the Cass County Courthouse, has been set up to seat 14 jurors, plus 20 spots in the audience, for more complex criminal trials, such as murder cases, Racek said. Other courtrooms will be used for civil cases or lesser offenses.
The court will screen potential jurors to prevent the coronavirus from coming into the courthouse, Racek said. Some of the more vulnerable populations may be exempt as well, he said.
Jensen said he is leaving coronavirus-based exemptions up to local courthouses.
“It’s hard to have a blanket rule,” he said. “We don’t want to exclude people who do want to be jurors. There may be somebody in the high-risk group that believes that they can adequately serve as a juror.”
Local courts also will decide whether to require masks. A judicial order for Mountrail and Ward counties in North Dakota said jurors will not be required to wear masks at all times. Cass County will strongly encourage jurors to wear face coverings and will provide one if needed.
Minnesota is requiring anyone who enters a courthouse to wear a mask. There is also a “very muscular” process for excusing jurors who are more likely to catch the virus or who have been infected, Gildea said.
“That’s really been inspiring to see Minnesotans coming forward to do their duty,” she said.
In some cases, court staff have taken creative steps to host juries since their facilities aren’t large enough to meet social distancing guidelines.
Gildea said Minnesota courts have looked at alternative spaces for criminal trials, including schools. Some North Dakota districts have looked to facilities owned by outside entities, Jensen said.
Stutsman County in central North Dakota signed a lease with the State Historical Society to rent space in the county's old courthouse, which is the state's oldest surviving courthouse. Built in 1883, the old courthouse will host its first trial since it was vacated in the 1980s.
“It will be cool,” Stutsman County Clerk of Court Barb Hill said, adding that the old courthouse has plenty of room now that the courtrooms have been renovated. “We’re pretty excited about this.”
Other hearings, such as arraignments or sentencings, will continue at the new courthouse, Hill said. Jury trials are set to start Tuesday, July 14, in Jamestown.
Cass County has also considered offsite locations for jury trials, including the old Fargo City Commission meeting room at the Civic Center, the Park District’s facility adjacent to the County Annex, and the federal courthouse. But none have been feasible.
"If anyone has some place they would give us access to for three or four months, we would be interested in looking at it," Racek said.