Ohio Law

Courts Get Creative to Restart Jury Trials Amid Pandemic

The judicial system is not immune to the effects of COVID-19. The coronavirus shut down court systems in Columbus and throughout the United States. However, the judicial process cannot be stalled forever.

People need to have a resolution in their case. Individuals being held in jail awaiting trial cannot wait forever. It is simply not fair, and it is not justice.

However, the courts must balance the need to continue hearings with the need to protect individuals from the virus. It is now known that COVID-19 is airborne. It spreads through the air, as well as contact with contaminated surfaces.

Therefore, the problem is how to conduct hearings and jury trials while protecting everyone in the courtroom. Unfortunately, both sides of the argument make very good points.

What is Columbus Doing About Court Hearings?

The courts in Columbus are trying to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic the best way they can. They are trying to be fair to the parties involved in a judicial matter while taking steps to prevent people from contracting the virus.

For example, the Franklin County Municipal Court hears eviction cases and traffic arraignments in the Columbus Convention Center. Individuals attending hearings must wear a face covering. At this time, the hearings are scheduled to remain at the center through August 31, 2020.

Courts are holding trials and hearings in Columbus. Most courts have taken precautions to protect individuals in the courtroom. Everyone must wear a face covering in the courtroom, and plexiglass separates individuals.

However, that is not the case in all courtrooms.

The Columbus Dispatch reported that Judge Richard A. Frye ordered that the plexiglass shields not be installed in his courtroom at the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. Judge Frey was concerned that the barriers would make it more difficult to hear the parties in the courtroom.

The judge did give jurors the option to spread out in the gallery instead of remaining in the jury box. The jurors also deliberated in the courtroom instead of the jury room.

Out of the 17 courtrooms, five judges chose not to have any barriers installed in their courtrooms. On the other hand, the Franklin County Municipal Court has plexiglass shields in all of its courtrooms.

Arguments For and Against Continuing with Jury Trials and Hearings

There are many reasons why we need to restart the judicial system. The most important reason is that people deserve to have their day in court. You cannot postpone a civil or criminal matter indefinitely.

However, how do you balance the need for justice with the need to protect everyone involved in the process?

Some courts have installed barriers to protect jurors, judges, attorneys, and witnesses. However, these barriers can be problematic. Attorneys who need to confer with their clients in private may not be able to do so when they are separated by plexiglass.

Barriers can also be a considerable distraction for jurors. Judge Frye said that he tried out the plexiglass barriers in another courtroom and found the ones in the jury box to be confining. He said that it is “disorienting and distracting” for jurors.

On the other hand, Judge Ted Barrows of the Franklin County Municipal Court stated that the symbolism of the plexiglass around judges’ benches is a good idea. It lets people know that even though the judge is sitting further away from everyone, the court is taking the COVID-19 precautions seriously.

Masks can also cause problems. It can be more difficult to understand people when they speak through a mask. Also, masks conceal facial expressions, which are often used by jurors to decide if they believe the testimony given by a witness.

What Should You Do if You Have to go to Court?

If your case is on the docket for a hearing or a trial, talk to your criminal defense attorney. For some individuals, it may be dangerous to be in a courtroom without barriers if they have any of the factors that place them at higher risk for contracting the disease. Likewise, some individuals may have a valid medical reason for not wearing a mask.

Letting your attorney know your concerns as soon as possible gives your attorney time to address the matter with the court. Waiting until the day before your hearing or trial to let your attorney know of an issue related to your health or COVID-19 operating procedures may result in you going to court regardless of the situation.

At the same time, it is important to understand that your attorney may not be able to change any of the operating procedures the court is using. You may be required to attend your hearing or face contempt charges or a guilty verdict.

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