A judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas has put a federal jury trial on pause after several people involved in the case tested positive for COVID-19. Infected parties include an attorney and at least one juror. Upon discovery of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Sherman, TX courthouse closed for deep cleaning.
The trial for ResMan v. Karya Property Management is one of about two dozen that have been held in-person in the Eastern District of Texas since the court resumed holding jury trials in June 2020. Jury selection in the case began on November 2, 2020, lasting until November 6.
The parties returned to court on November 8, 2020. But by November 12, at least one juror had tested positive for COVID-19. An attorney involved in the case also tested positive for the virus, prompting testing for other participants as well.
Following the trial’s suspension, testing results ultimately impacted the final jury selection and the defense declined to proceed with less than 6 jurors. The court orally granted a mistrial and a new trial will now be scheduled for 2021.
Courts in the Eastern District of Texas have required certain precautions to be taken whenever events are held in person. These include symptom screenings, masks, social distancing, and the use of plexiglass barriers. Despite these precautions, however, the court acknowledges there is no way to fully eliminate the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Coronavirus Impacts on the Legal System
The ResMan case isn’t the only one to be affected by COVID-19. The Eastern District of Texas joins 24 other U.S. district courts that have paused or suspended grand jury proceedings or jury trials in an effort to respond to recent surges in COVID-19 infections.
On November 20, 2020, another judge in the Eastern District of Texas postponed all jury trials until March 2021. Although the judge said the choice was a difficult one to make, he also stated that public health pressures make postponement of in-person jury trials the more appropriate decision. In a footnote, the judge also mentioned the outbreak in the Sherman courthouse, citing it as evidence of the need for extra caution given increases in infections.
Courts acknowledge not only trouble managing the risks of viral transmission, but also of responding to jurors’ wariness to attend courtroom jury selection or trials, given the rise in cases and the increased risks inherent in indoor activities. Juror hesitation runs the risk not only of depopulating juror pools but also of creating juror pools that do not fairly represent the demographic makeup of the community.
In an attempt to responsibly manage COVID-19 risks, many courts have created reopening plans with local infection rates in mind. Many plans have also been forced to evolve as infections have fluctuated.
A Slow Return to Court
The novel coronavirus presents a number of challenges for courts seeking to return to in-person juror selection, hearings, and jury trials. One of the biggest challenges is the layout and ventilation of courtrooms themselves. Since COVID-19 can be transmitted via airborne droplets created by ordinary breathing, it is more likely to concentrate in indoor spaces that don’t have adequate ventilation to cycle room air several times an hour.
In addition, early guidance on close physical contact has been revised as scientists have learned more about the virus. “Evidence now confirms that this virus can remain airborne for longer times and further distances than we thought,” notes the EPA’s guidance on indoor air exposure and COVID-19.
Asymptomatic people are known to transmit the virus as well. They may be even more effective at transmitting COVID-19 than those who have symptoms. A CDC report estimates that over 50% of transmissions are by people who have no symptoms. While symptom screenings may help some people spot their own infections, they may do little to prevent transmission overall.
Additional information on the virus’s spread may result in revisions to our understanding of how social distancing works, particularly in indoor spaces. For example, research may result in recommendations for social distancing or the number of people in an indoor space that do not currently match the six-foot expectation.
The changing science surrounding the virus helps us better understand how to best respond. It also creates challenges for courts and other organizations seeking to plan reopening or re-closing protocols. These challenges are likely to remain an issue well into next year.