A court in Texas is holding the first jury trial on Zoom as the country faces a choice between postponing trials until the pandemic ends or holding remote proceedings.
Lawyers in an insurance dispute in Collin County District Court on Monday picked a jury to hear the case by videoconference, in what officials believe is the first virtual jury trial to be held nationally amid the Covid-19 crisis.
More than two dozen potential jurors logged in by smartphone, laptop, and tablet for jury selection, which was streamed live on YouTube here with a judge occasionally providing tech advice on how to best use their devices.
Officials say the abbreviated format and non-binding verdict make it ideal to test the viability of holding jury trials remotely, as they grapple with the more daunting challenge of how to conduct them safely in person during the pandemic.
“You can’t drag people down to the courthouse and make them sit together for days at a time,” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said in an interview.
“It’s just too dangerous.”
Courts throughout the country have since March curtailed operations and limited in-person court hearings as states adopted stay-at-home orders and ordered businesses closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Trials that could not be postponed have started moving to Zoom. The case in Texas, however, is believed to be the first jury trial to take place on the videoconferencing software.
“So much of trying a case from the lawyers’ perspective is having a feel for the courtroom and for the people in the courtroom and what is interesting to them, “told Judge Vince Chhabria to The Verge.
“So much of presiding over a trial, as a judge, has to do with feel. I think it would be unfortunate if the new normal became too reliant on remote proceedings.”
In 39 states and the District of Columbia, court systems on a statewide basis directed or encouraged judges to conduct hearings remotely by phone or videoconference, according to the National Center for State Courts. But jury trials came to a halt.
Monday’s case, a lawsuit accusing the insurer State Farm of failing to honor its obligations to cover property damage to a building caused by a 2017 storm, was originally set to go to trial in McKinney, Texas, in March.
Even as courts in many states draw up plans to resume operations, judges and court officials have questioned how to safely conduct in-person trial proceedings.
Ideas include spreading jurors out in a courtroom and requiring them and lawyers to wear masks. Even with these precautions, it is not clear how hundreds of people can be asked to show up for jury duty in cramped courthouses.
“It’s just imponderable,” said Hecht.
“There are hundreds of people over the country studying how do we get back to jury trials.”
The Indiana Supreme Court said last week that once jury trials resume in the state, parties in civil cases can agree to conduct them remotely. And in Arizona, the state’s top court has said it will allow jurors to be selected remotely.
The moves come as courts face a growing backlog of cases. In 2019, Texas held an average of 186 jury trials per week, said David Slayton, the Texas Office of Court Administration’s administrative director.
Whether virtual trials will be successful remains to be seen.
Judge Emily Miskel, whose courthouse is overseeing Monday’s trial, said the case could illuminate whether a “hybrid approach” is possible, in which jury selection is virtual and the remainder of the trial is conducted in person.
Slayton acknowledged that holding trials remotely presents challenges, including making sure jurors remain attentive and do not conduct research online. But those issues also exist with in-person trials and can be easily dealt with by a warning from the judge, he said.
“Obviously it’s on video, so the judge can tell if jurors are washing dishes or doing something else,” said Slayton.
Despite the potential for technical difficulties during the court proceeding, it is still a good use of the video-conferencing app.