Federal court plans to restore jury trials

Court processes will be adapted to ensure the safety of all parties in the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, Jacksonville Division is modifying its facilities and processes to allow jurors to safely return to the Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse.

Federal civil and criminal jury trials were suspended in late March to reduce transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

When jurors can safely return to the courthouse, they will be selected for criminal trials involving defendants who want their day in court in front of a judge and jury and whose trials are postponed because of the pandemic, said U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard.

“For the past five months, we’ve been remote and video only. If a defendant wants an in-person trial, we’ve continued their case,” Howard said.

“There is no pandemic exception to a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial,” she said. 

She said jury trials will resume “as soon as we can do it safely and preserve the judicial process. Jurors have to feel comfortable coming to the courthouse.”

The adaptations will begin when people are notified they have been selected as potential jurors.

Howard said the summons will include a survey that may allow potential jurors to defer their service to a later date if they explain why they aren’t comfortable going to the courthouse, such as if they are in a high-risk category or the caregiver for someone at high risk if they contract COVID-19.

For people who eventually report to the courthouse for jury selection, face masks and social distancing will be required throughout the building and hand sanitizer will be available at multiple points.

New directional microphones will be installed in the jury selection room so potential jurors won’t have to hand a microphone to each other.

Inside the courtroom, seats in the jury box will be separated by clear plastic shields. 

Jurors will wear face masks and shields, Howard said.

To maintain social distancing and confidentiality among trial participants, the court is purchasing a two-way, closed circuit communication system with headsets to connect the judge, stenographer, court staff, the defendant and the attorneys.

Howard said after the new equipment arrives and is installed, the court will conduct a mock trial to test the system and process before a jury is called.

“We’re going to find a way to give people their day in federal court,” Howard said.

However, the court will not restore jury trials in Jacksonville until all the new systems and equipment are installed and after federal, state and local health officials determine that it’s safe for jurors to serve in-person at the courthouse, Howard said.