“Oh no, not jury duty!” exclaims the frazzled parent of two toddlers, the plumber with a calendar full of appointments and kids in college, or the graduate student working full-time and taking evening classes. Busy citizens from all walks of life often share a sense of dread upon learning they must rearrange their jam-packed schedules to perform their civic duty.
A Temporary Necessity
Many judges and court executives may have experienced similar anxiety during the COVID pandemic upon realizing that, with courthouses closed to the public, court proceedings would need to be handled remotely, including jury selection.
Courts responded in a variety of ways. Some suspended jury proceedings until public buildings could safely re-open. Others used a limited approach to remote voir dire, perhaps focusing on certain case types.
But some courts quickly transformed themselves to accommodate remote jury functions, including jury selection, various hearings, and even full civil and criminal trials. The range of experiences from these courts provides helpful knowledge on the pros and cons of virtual jury selection moving forward.
Courts are now returning to a “new normal” in operations. It is no longer necessary to conduct jury selection remotely. Many courts appear content to revert to in-person jury selection, but some will continue remotely screening some or all potential jurors.
For example, New Jersey and Washington states have adopted or are considering ongoing statewide virtual jury selection. Several large metropolitan jurisdictions will retain some form of virtual jury selection, including Fulton County (GA), King County (CA), and Travis County (TX), among others.
Or Maybe a Long-Term Solution?
Here are a few reasons why courts might choose to implement remote jury selection over the long term:
As a court planner, I assure you this is an important potential benefit. The jury assembly area is among the largest spaces in a courthouse. In larger courts, it needs to accommodate well over 100 people comfortably. Well-designed jury facilities typically include restrooms, a kitchenette/vending area, and perhaps a complement of semi-private tables and work areas.
Jurors might be In the jury assembly area for hours and play an integral role in the judicial process, so their comfort is important. Virtual jury selection creates opportunities to reduce or eliminate the need for jury assembly space. This reduction could save costs and add flexibility to courthouse construction and renovation projects.
Reduced Foot Traffic
Although the courthouse should be a welcoming public place, there are plenty of good reasons why less foot traffic can be beneficial. The deputies stationed at the security screening area have a difficult and important job. Reducing foot traffic allows them to focus more on identifying potential security threats.
The more people who visit the courthouse on a given day, the more deputies are needed to conduct screening. A high volume of visitors also creates the potential for longer wait times and the need for a larger queuing area to accommodate those waiting to be screened.
Jurors are often instructed to arrive first thing in the morning when employees, many other visitors, and litigants arrive. Virtual voir dire can enhance courthouse security by helping to minimize foot traffic at the busiest times.
Cost and Time Savings
Returning to our busy citizens from the opening paragraph, participating in virtual jury selection could tremendously benefit potential jurors. They could save money directly on gas, parking, bus/train fare, childcare, food, and lost wages compared to in-person selection. They could also save on the opportunity cost of commuting to the courthouse, waiting to be called for an interview, and waiting for final selections.
Judges, court clerks, and attorneys also realize potential savings by using less staff time to manage the smaller groups of jurors ultimately selected to serve. In addition, multiple courts reported higher response and participation rates with remote jury selection compared to in-person selection. Perhaps this reflects an emphasis on social distancing during the pandemic and hesitation about public spaces. Higher participation rates make the selection process more efficient and reduce the size of the overall pool to seat the needed number of jurors.
Can We Afford It?
Of course, there are many counterpoints why virtual jury selection needs to be treated cautiously and may not be a good fit for every court. For example, the ability of individuals within the juror pool to access and utilize technology creates legal issues of equity.
Addressing these issues may require courts to provide access to technology for prospective jurors. Some courts have responded by creating “Zoom Rooms” within the courthouse where residents can participate in virtual jury selection. Other courts have purchased tablets and laptops to loan to residents for this purpose.
Regardless of the method chosen, it is clear that courts opting for virtual jury selection will need to invest in technology to ensure access and equal treatment for residents. Perhaps not coincidentally, the courts on the leading edge of this trend are from large metropolitan areas where they can harness economies of scale in acquiring the technology.
Other interested courts may need to take more of a “start small” approach. Perhaps they can focus on a subset of cases or use a hybrid approach that permits but does not require prospective jurors to participate remotely in voir dire. Finding the right balance may allow many courts to realize space usage and staff time efficiencies without breaking the bank on new technology.