The COVID-19 omicron wave has flooded every corner of our interactive society. Quite simply, wherever there are people in a setting lacking free moving fresh air, this winter’s wave of sickness is spreading.
So far, the current reality of pre-existing immunity, vaccinations and effective COVID treatments has been enough for all of us to limit omicron’s toll. It results in proportionately fewer hospitalizations and deaths than the previous variants. It’s encouraging. Nonetheless, it is spreading quickly and many have tested positive.
Either way, we need essential utilities to keep doing their daily jobs during this peak. This is certainly true for our justice system – now more than ever in the midst of an epic crime wave.
It was troubling to learn last week that several judicial districts in the state have suspended jury trials at least until the end of January. The Chief Justice of the Denver District Court has suspended jury summons until January 28, in part due to staff absences related to COVID.
Likewise, it’s reassuring that, so far, Colorado’s federal courts have yet to follow suit. They remain open to companies that organize jury trials. At least so far.
As our Colorado Politics news outlet reported, federal judges are considering what to do to prevent jurors, witnesses, lawyers or court staff infected with COVID from causing the trial to be canceled. In a recent conference call with the parties in a civil case, U.S. District Court Senior Judge R. Brooke Jackson said he and other federal judges planned to meet in two weeks to assess what to do about the trials.
As noted in the Colorado Politics report, Jackson’s exchange on appeal with litigation attorneys was instructive. They fleshed out the various practical concerns that COVID presents in the courtroom. The judge answered questions from lawyers about what would happen if a witness or lawyer tested positive for COVID-19 midway through the trial.
“If it was a witness who had not yet testified but could be presented at a distance, it could be done,” replied the judge. “But if it’s someone in the courtroom who becomes ill or has a positive test, we should follow the procedures of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and our court if there is a close contact – within six feet for at least 15 minutes – then you must quarantine. “
Jackson said if a juror was positive it “wouldn’t be fatal. But the problem is, if the juror was positive and had been with all the other jurors, I think it could be a problem.”
In pre-COVID times, a summons was a summons. But since the onset of COVID, that notion has been complicated by the fact that jurors are forced to sit in tight quarters for long periods of time – something many people may not want to do at the moment.
And yet, especially in criminal matters, the accused have the right to a speedy trial while the public also has the right to see the criminals sent to prison if they are found guilty.
Rather than suspending proceedings, could courts continue to fulfill their mission with contingency plans, such as increasing the number of deputy jurors in case too many jurors test positive? Are there other steps the courts could take to keep jurors working – and justice on track?