Several courthouses in Northeastern Minnesota have now held jury trials with COVID-19 safeguards in place. I presided over the first of these trials in Duluth the week of September 21. It was unlike any trial I have seen.
The physical layout of the courtroom was changed dramatically. The jury sat where the public gallery used to be. The lawyers and defendant sat in what should have been the jury box. The witness stand was moved to a location in the middle of the courtroom. The entire proceeding was broadcast to another courtroom, which we used as a public gallery. All of these changes were implemented to ensure proper social distancing.
We were limited to calling in 15 jurors at a time, which is less than half of the usual number for a felony trial. This meant the jury selection process took much longer, as the questions from the attorneys and me had to be repeated a couple different times. We tried to eliminate some of that duplication by having the jurors submit written questionnaires in advance of the trial. Jurors did not use the usual deliberation room; instead, the jurors deliberated in the jury lounge, which is a much larger space. County personnel also had to do special cleaning in between juror groups, and every night.
Everyone in the courtroom wore masks, including the attorneys and me. I know how difficult it must have been for the attorneys to make their closing arguments through a piece of cloth, but they both handled it like professionals. The witnesses all wore a face shield during their testimony. We treated them differently because it is important to be able to see facial expressions during testimony, in order to better judge credibility. However, this created some challenges with our sound system, which occasionally got muffled when the microphone could not pick things up clearly. During trial, I was much farther away from the jurors and witnesses than usual, which made it hard for my aging ears to hear sometimes. Fortunately, my court reporter is able to give me a transcript in real time, so I was able to read along when a person’s voice was too soft to hear clearly.
After the trial concluded, I spoke to all the jurors. I was happy to hear that they all felt good about the precautions we had taken to protect everyone’s safety. We do not want anyone to feel like they cannot perform this civic duty due to the COVID-19 virus. A few days later, court administration held a meeting with some judges and court staff to go over the “lessons learned” from this new way of conducting a trial. I won’t sugarcoat it: I was exhausted by the end of that trial, and I’ll be very happy when we can go back to doing things the normal way. But after not having jury trials for six months, it was vitally important that we were able to get back in business. We do not know how long these precautions will be necessary, but in the meantime we have a plan to continue providing this essential part of court operations.