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No trials in Massachusetts courts until at least September as justices try to figure out how to socially distance jurors and others in a courtroom

In a letter to lawyers yesterday, leaders of the state trial and appeals courts announced their court buildings will likely remain shut through at least the end of June, but that trials probably won't restart until September, due to Covid-19 concerns.

Still, as judges and lawyers have gotten better adept at online justice, there will be fewer delays in pre-trial hearings and conferences as those move to videoconferences and phone calls, SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants, Appeals Court Chief Justice Mark Green and Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey wrote yesterday.

We expect that courthouses will physically reopen this summer, but only in stages and only for certain matters that require in-person appearances. Even as courthouses reopen, we will still need to conduct most court business virtually to reduce the number of lawyers, litigants, and court personnel that come to the courthouse, so that those who must come can do so safely with the necessary social distancing. The days when our Trial Court welcomed approximately 40,000 persons a day into our courthouses are over, at least for the duration of the pandemic. ...

We hope that, in September, if schools reopen, we will once again begin to conduct jury trials. But the challenges of conducting jury trials with social distancing during a pandemic are formidable, and will require us to reimagine how juries are empaneled, where they will sit during trial, and where they will deliberate so that jurors can both be safe and feel safe. We are hard at work trying to address those challenges, and it is premature to predict now what it will look like.

The justices continued that, in the long run, the changes made to accommodate online justice will turn out to be a good thing:

Long before the pandemic, we recognized that the civil courts of the future would need to resolve an increasing number and range of matters without burdening attorneys, litigants, and witnesses with the need to come to a courthouse. By doing so, we would enable attorneys to reduce the time (and therefore the cost) devoted to litigation, spare self-represented litigants from the need to miss work or find child or elder care, and allow civil disputes to be resolved equally thoughtfully but more efficiently. Before the pandemic, we expected that it would take years to make substantial progress in this regard; with the pandemic, we have made substantial progress in just a few months. Therefore, even when this pandemic is behind us, we do not believe we will or should go back to doing things as we did in February. We are, more quickly than many thought we could and with some stumbles along the way, creating a more modern and efficient court system that will survive after the pandemic has passed.

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Comments

Zoom.

Thank god the gov doesn’t run our healthcare. Idiots.

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There are some major constitutional issues at play here - such as the right to confront one's accusers and the right to a public trial. The right to a jury of one's peers might also be involved: How do you do jury selection and hold jury deliberations online?

In recent decisions involving Massachusetts gun shops and debt collectors, federal courts have ruled Massachusetts can't violate the Constitution just because we're in a pandemic. Maybe there is a Zoom answer, but thank God we're still, barely, a country of laws and so we have judges to think these things through first.

Two more words: Reading comprehension. If you read my post (it's not that long, really), you'll notice that Massachusetts courts ARE using Zoom and even phone calls for a lot of required pre-trial conferences and hearings that used to be held in person. It's not like the judicial system isn't aware of technology.

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I fulfilled jury service in a small district court in early March and I cannot imagine the jury pool room in most courthouses would allow for a sufficiently sized jury pool to be safely distanced (not to mention that in at least one courthouse, it is a poorly ventilated room in the basement.)

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My wife just got a call for jury duty in August. Guess that's not going to happen, she was going to defer, anyway.

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Before the virus got into full swing, I was called back in February or so to appear in June. I deferred until next year. I wonder if the people who were scheduled during this time of cancellation are off the hook for the next three years or if they are still required to appear whenever things open up again? I absolutely don't mind doing my civic duty myself, but I have had to appear about thirteen times since the 70s when I became of age. Every three years like clockwork. I have tried to find out why, when most people do not get called nearly so frequently, but nobody will give me a satisfactory answer. It can't possibly just be "the luck of the draw".

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I don’t know why, but it’s been the same for me. Every three years like clockwork.

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It was every three years like clockwork for me too, until I got empaneled. Then I got eight years off. I was supposed to go again in March.

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I was also called in February. Was scheduled for June. Received notification last week that June was canceled.

We appreciate your willingness to serve, but due to the changing needs of the court, your service is no longer required. We apologize for any inconvenience this cancellation may cause.

Please note, cancelled jurors may be summoned again as soon as next year. Only those jurors who are required to actually appear at the courthouse for service are disqualified for the next three years.

So my duty isn't fulfilled, just deferred. I'm OK with that.

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I was supposed to serve in late June, but I then got the notice in early June that my service wasn't required for that time. I had already served in a trial in November-December 2015, so my time was up to be called anyway.

Deferrment works for me.

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If you live in Suffolk County you will be called much more frequently. More crime in Boston with only 4 cities in the county.

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I'd think that showing up for jury duty, waiting to see if your name's been called, and then going through the selection process is one step that could be moved online fairly easily. Being called for jury duty would be so much less onerous if that could happen.

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The way the courts work does not make it that simple, and I really did not appreciate the process the first time I served when I lived in the city, at Suffolk Superior where the jury pool was massive and there were many cases.

This time around, I served at a district court in Norfolk County. The day before, I called in, everyone called for that day has to show up. So we show up, we wait the hour or so, are shown the video (which was a newer one than I had seen before!), then we got a break, then we waited a few minutes more, were brought up to the court room, the judge spoke, and we were dismissed having fulfilled our obligation to the Commonwealth.

So why did we all have to show up, sit around for 2 hours, just to be told to go home?

There were 2 cases to be heard that day at that courthouse. Either one, or both, I suppose, could have gone to jury trial that day. The first case was resolved in a way that did not require a trial (so either they plead guilty outright, made some sort of a deal, or the case was dropped. We weren't told.)

The second case was going to trial, however the defendant was considering waiving their right to a jury trial and just have their case decided by a judge. Up until the proper legal process was gone through in court to finalize this decision, the judge needed to be able to impanel a jury for this case on the day the case was scheduled to be heard. As soon as our presence in the court was no longer necessary, we were released, but until that point, we legally needed to be present in the event the defense changed their mind and requested a speedy trial by a jury of their peers, as are their Constitutionally protected rights.

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Those examples are similar to some of my experience, and I agree.
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...though I was not then (nor am I any more now) entirely sanguine about the jury system being used as a somewhat blunt instrument of the prosecutor's office.

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Not up to the DA

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No.

I'm talking about when DA says to defendant (and their counsel): Take the plea deal we're offering now. If you don't, we've got a jury waiting down the hall and we'll take you to trial after lunch.
That's what happened one time I was on jury duty in district court.
Presenting the jury to the defendant as a risk/gamble on the defendant's part. Making the jury (supposedly impartial) out as being a part of the apparatus against the defendant (instead of something that the prosecutor has to convince as well). That's using the jury as a blunt instrument.
Sure - the defense counsel will try to reinforce their client against that, if they think it's in the client's best interest to go jury. But the disadvantaged - the poor, immigrants, minorities, repeat offenders - are disproportionately more likely to be using less experienced, less elite representations, maybe public defenders, who will be less adept at countering that gamesmanship. NOT just at all.

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And usually benefits the defense. Witnesses are more likely not going to show up for the prosecution than they will for the defense. And the jury still has nothing to do with that, as the DA can say they are ready for a bench trial just as easily. And public defenders in Suffolk County are pretty damn good.

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Nonsense.
I'm not talking about whether witnesses are more or less likely to show up. I'm talking about prosecution using the a jury (the idea of a jury) to try to intimidate a defendant.
That does NOT "go both ways". Oh, the poor DA was bullied by the defense.. Bull. Everybody on the prosecution side are professionals, and can filter out the difference between opposition bluster and actually weighing the merits of the case and its prospects in bench trial versus jury trial. The central figure on the defense side is usually an amateur whose professional counsel is trying to filter the BS for them.

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I’ve seen about 1,000 of them. Most of them don’t get “threatened” by the DA because they are hoping the DA can’t go forward and drops the charges right there (because witnesses don’t show up, cops don’t show up, victim doesn’t want to testify, etc). At the trial date, there already were a few discovery dates anyway, and other dates where they could have worked something out.

And what does the jury have to do with it? And the defense requests the jury, not the DA. The DA just tells the judge they are ready for trial and the defense attorney already knew that because the date was scheduled for a TRIAL!

I mean, what should the defense expect when they show up for a trial date? A trial date that they requested!

Also, if your on a jury, you don’t see any of the pre trail conference, so how would you even know why the DA said?

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what does the jury have to do with it?

The concept of the jury is being used as a blunt instrument against the defendant.
Those potential jurors aren't being used directly since they aren't seen until a jury is impaneled.
The time of the potential jurors is sort-of being used in that exercise, though they would still be there without the brinksmanship.
It creates a tiny risk of prejudicial impatience by jurors against either party (though more likely against the defense). Hey - this idiot didn't take the plea deal they offered him? With THIS MUCH evidence against him? grumble grumble mind made up ten minutes in

how would you even know why the DA said?

When officials of the court come in to the panel room and tell you that's what's happening.

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And the defense requests the jury, not the DA. The DA just tells the judge they are ready for trial and the defense attorney already knew that because the date was scheduled for a TRIAL!

Yes, it is the defendant's right to request a jury trial (as opposed to being tried by the judge). But once he or she makes that request, the DA is just as active as the defendant's lawyer in determining who sits on that jury - DAs have the right to challenge prospective jurors just as much as the defense attorney.

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And I'm not sure Rob was either.

The facts are that the DA is going to have the advantage in every trail for all sorts of reasons (it wouldn't get to a trial date if they didn't), but using the jury in some sort of "blunt Instrument" isn't in the top 100 advantages that the DA has. The defense (or DA) either has a winnable case or he doesn't. Waiting until a trial date is a tactic used by defense attorneys over the DA for the simple fact that they know if the DA isn't going to have witnesses (which is common) that the case is going to be dismissed completely.

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I just called for late July and postponed til next July. I get that it's important but I hope there's a vaccine before I need to go.

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Besides the jury, isn't there some default level of trials having to be accessible to the public to attend?

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Public trials are a constitutional right, for both the public and defendants.

I don't know what state courts have been doing with things like arraignments and bail hearings, but the federal courts have been allowing the public to watch them on Zoom (if you can find out about them, it's not like the old days when you could just wander into a courthouse and just take a seat in a courtroom).

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