Editor’s note: In-person jury trials are set to resume in Scott County this summer. Below is the first of two articles breaking down the decision, concerns and how to handle the increased case load moving forward.
The Supreme Court of Kentucky issued two administrative orders last week lifting most COVID-19 restrictions for court systems in the state.
The announcement came from Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. in the wake of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest guidance for fully vaccinated individuals.
The first administrative order relates specifically to health and safety requirements, which allows in-person access to court facilities and eliminates mask requirements for fully vaccinated members of the public, and it allows judges to conduct in-person court proceedings. However, it does still encourage masks for those unvaccinated members of the public and employees.
The second administrative order relates to court proceedings and lifts most of the restrictions on jury trials but requires continuances, postponements and recusals for attorneys, parties and jurors who are ill or at an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
“We believe that the change in the position by the CDC came rather quickly and unexpectedly, and we tried to react to that because we know we need to get back into business,” Minton said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do and we knew people would be anxious about how quickly we could get back to normal operation. We are just responding to the changes that are happening.”
Earlier this year, Circuit Court Judge Jeremy Mattox stated that jury trials in Scott County were essentially delayed an entire year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which did not allow for in-person jury trials for almost the entirety of 2020. Mattox has not had an in-person jury trial since 2019, partly due to personal circumstances early last year and the pandemic restrictions taking effect shortly thereafter.
As of publication, Mattox’s first in-person jury trial is scheduled for July in Scott County. Although he’s had some a couple scheduled in Bourbon County for June, but those entered pleas rather than going to trial.
Damon Preston, public advocate with the Department of Public Advocacy (DPA) , said he was thrilled with the decision to restart in-person jury trials.
“We’re happy to see that court proceedings are going to be able to go on,” he said. “The backlog in the criminal court system is significant, so the quicker the courts can unload that backlog through resolving cases, the better for everybody. We appreciate the chief justice’s patience and leadership over the last year or so, and we believe this order was appropriate and it’s the right time to be able to adjust to the current situation. It’s time to unpause the system and get it moving again.”
Excitement for resuming jury trials in the circuit court was shared by Commonwealth Attorney Sharon Muse. However, she can’t help but think of the missed opportunities that still could have been resolved in the past year.
“I’m obviously thankful that we can start in person because not only have we not been having trials, but despite our best efforts we’ve not been able to get cases resolved because defendants know we can’t take them to trial,” Muse said. “So attorneys simply didn’t work to resolve their cases. We’ve had all this time we could’ve been resolving cases and it’s not happened. Now, we’re going to have stacks of cases to try now that the defense is finally responding to us. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get the opportunity until now.”
A primary concern with in-person jury trials is the number of people unable to participate in jury duty due to a variety of concerns.
“AOC (Administrative Offices of the Courts) sent out an additional little letter to each person who’s a potential juror,” Mattox said. “Basically, if they have concerns with COVID, be it health or financial, because some people have had a really bad year financially, to allow them to use that a means to be excused from jury duty.”
Mattox said that Scott County Circuit Clerk Tina Foster sent out “150 percent of what we’d normally call in for jury duty.” However, he added that over 60 percent of the people in the jury pool were excused with COVID-19 concerns.
Muse said she has concerns about how the reaction to COVID-19 may affect trials.
“Obviously I want the members of the community to feel safe and comfortable, but my concern is for the defendants and victims to feel like they got a fair trial,” Muse said. “I don’t know how COVID could not affect our jury pool because there are people who aren’t comfortable who might otherwise be spectacular jurors, but because of this they’re not going to participate, and that concerns me. Our role is not simply to try a case. Our role is to ensure that the cases we try are done so in fairness to the defense and the victim. The jury is the most important element in that.”
The population may be more reluctant than usual, Minton said.
“We’ve all been programmed throughout COVID to avoid crowds and maintain distances, and we’re all still reacting to that,” he said. “I can expect if you send out random notices to the population that there will be people who remain reluctant to get out and get involved in something like this. There will be that natural resistance, but the judge will have to deal with those on a county-by-county and a case-by-case basis, and use their best judgment as they arise. We will have vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and we’ll have to figure out how to do that.”
Certain protocols will be in place, but nothing as heavily enforced as in the height of the pandemic.
“For the jury pool, we’ll ask them to spread out as much as we can, but for a circuit court trial that’s four of five days, I don’t know,” Mattox said. “I don’t know if they’ll necessarily be 6 feet apart but they won’t be sitting shoulder to shoulder.”
Mattox added that masks won’t be required, but if people are more comfortable wearing them, then they are free to do so. However, the new administrative orders allow judges to require individuals to wear masks in their courtroom at any point.
Other actions not previously mentioned that are also included in the two administrative orders are:
— Encourages continued use of remote technology for court proceedings and allows any individual with a scheduled remote hearing to appear remotely.
— Allows filings and payments to be made in-person at the local Office of Circuit Court Clerk.
— Allows master commissioners to conduct judicial sales remotely or in person with no limitations.
— Retains the July 1, 2021 start date for show cause dockets for payments of ones and court costs.
Kyle Woosley can be reached at email@example.com.