Resuming Jury Trials in Seattle

Resuming Jury Trials in Seattle

Court systems across the country are on indefinite hold.  The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington has continued all in-person civil and criminal proceedings scheduled to occur before August 3, 2020 pending further order of the Court.[1]  In Washington state courts, all civil and criminal jury trials are suspended until at least July 6, 2020.[2]  The King County Superior Court plans – tentatively – to resume jury trials in sometime in July.

Although much pretrial lawyering can be done remotely, jury trials require public participation, and historically have been conducted in-person.  But while Washington has flattened the curve, public health professionals unanimously agree that premature resumption of pre-pandemic life would pose a grave threat to the public health.  Life will not go back to “normal” all at once.

Jury trials present unique challenges because they typically have involved putting large groups of strangers in close contact with each other, sometimes for weeks.  How are we to do this during an interim period – pre-vaccine and pre-“herd immunity”?

The answer matters and is urgent.  At the risk of stating the obvious:  jury trials animate our entire system of dispute resolution and underpin the rule of law.  Juries are at the core of our cultural narrative about representative government and fairness.

Our system of governance cannot long survive without jury trials.  If we are to resume jury trials in the coming months, we must immediately address the attendant practical and legal impediments.

The King County Superior Court has convened a group of criminal and civil lawyers for their input on jury practices that might allow the resumption of jury trials in 2020.  The Court’s goal is to evaluate and establish practices that comport with public health guidance and instill confidence in the public that it is safe to serve as a juror.

Savitt Bruce & Willey LLP has been participating in this effort.  Linked here is our memorandum with suggestions on the resumption of jury trials.  It suggests principles to consider in moving forward, rather than a detailed plan.

We believe that best policies and practices will emerge as we move cases forward.  Lawyers and judges are fundamentally creatures of the common law, and we feel our way forward, one case at a time, finding solutions and creating rules that work.

We suggest that’s what the legal community needs to do here: assuming the persistence of present public health trends (rates of infection, hospitalization, and mortality), we need to start trying cases again, and in doing so, to figure out what is reasonable and practicable, one case a time.

The memorandum addresses the goal of instilling public confidence that it is safe to serve as a juror.  Although the bench and bar should implement and promote robust risk-mitigation measures, our suggestion is to avoid conveying the impression that the jury service will be risk-free, and to focus on attempting to encourage and reward jurors as essential public workers performing a valuable service.

–David N. Bruce

[1] In re Second Extension of Modified Court Operations Under the Exigent Circumstances Created by COVID-19 and Related Coronavirus, General Order No. 08-20, May 13, 2020.

[2] In re Statewide Response by Washington State Courts to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, No. 25700-B-618, Second Revised and Extended Order Regarding Court Operations, April 29, 2020.