One year after the Connecticut Judicial Branch suspended jury trials at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, trials remain indefinitely postponed while the branch monitors the state’s virus metrics and considers how to safely conduct in-person proceedings.
March 12 marked the one-year anniversary of the branch’s suspension of jury trials. It coincided with the closure of courthouses and the interruption of many other state court functions. The court system adapted quickly and shifted much of its business to online remote forums, but trials have remained out of reach.
Jury trials were cancelled through April 30 and, as of this week, there were no current plans to resume them immediately after that date.
“No decision has been made as yet,” Judge James Abrams, chief administrative judge of the branch’s civil division, said Monday. “Paramount in that decision-making is public health and safety. We don’t want to be bringing people in when they’re not comfortable, be it judges, the lawyers, litigants or the jurors.”
Judge David Gold, chief administrative judge of the criminal division, agreed, saying the branch would be weighing the state’s virus situation over the next month and a half. Gold said he was not aware of any specific metric the courts would use to trigger the relaunch of in-person trials.
The pandemic poses additional challenges for the state’s criminal courts, where defendants have constitutional rights to be present at trial and confront witnesses. And unlike civil cases, criminal trials can sometimes require up to 12-person juries. Under normal circumstances, a court may convene a jury with four alternate jurors. Given the public health crisis, Gold said it made sense to seat extra alternates as trials get underway.
“You could be talking about 18 jurors. If you still are maintaining social distancing, you can imagine the size of the courtroom that would be required for that number of jurors to sit sufficiently separate from one another,” Gold said.
Both judges were reluctant to guess when trials may resume. They pointed to the branch’s experience last year when, in late summer, the courts had prepared to begin the trial process at the beginning of November. Those plans had to be scrapped after the state’s previously-low COVID infection rate shot up around 6% just before jury selection was scheduled to resume.
“People were ready. Cases had been selected,” Gold said. “What’s going to happen 45 days from now? I guess I have no more of a crystal ball now as I did back in September.”
Abrams was optimistic that the COVID situation would markedly improve as the state continues its effort to roll out the vaccine. He said the landscape could look a lot better in a month, giving court administrators more confidence to begin discussions on when to resume trials.
Although other court functions have continued, both divisions are looking at case backlogs as a result of the trial suspension. Abrams said the delay has been less severe on the civil side of the court system.
“It’s something that, on the civil side, I’m confident we’ll need about a year to fix. It’s far from an insurmountable problem,” he said.
Gold was reluctant to speculate to what extent the pandemic had put the criminal courts behind schedule.
“I think this is so unprecedented, that I wouldn’t want to state a number that people will look to as reliable and then use it as an indicator of what should or shouldn’t happen,” he said.
Courts have maintained a “fairly decent handle” on cases requiring urgent attention, he said. Meanwhile, in December, the courts were resolving close to as many cases as new issues coming through the door, he said. Even in pre-pandemic times, cases often took many months or longer to be resolved, he said.
“There have always been large numbers of cases in pretrial status and a large number of cases on our statewide jury list. It goes without saying that those numbers are somewhat greater,” Gold said.