Submitted by San Juan County Courts
The San Juan County Superior Court and District Court are taking steps to resume conducting jury trials for the first time since early March when the COVID-19 global pandemic hit Washington State. Although it is uncertain what local health conditions will look like in the fall, both courts are working hard to be ready for jury trials to resume if conditions allow – and that means sending out jury summons.
On March 18, the Washington State Supreme Court suspended all civil and criminal jury trials as a result of COVID-19. The Washington Supreme Court has recently allowed jury trials to resume, and each county can decide when it is safe to do so in their region. Because jury trials are a cornerstone of our democracy and a constitutional right, courts across the state have been working to hold trials again.
In San Juan County, trials are still on hold. The courts are currently making major changes to their facilities and their court procedures in order to protect the health and safety of jurors during jury selection and service. Following statewide health guidance and recommendations of public health experts, new procedures will include:
• Jury screening questions to allow some jury selection remotely, reducing or eliminating your time in court;
• Smaller groups of jurors brought in at one time to allow physically distant seating;
• Health questionnaires conducted of all jurors daily;
• Masks required to be worn in the courtroom, except some active participants in the trial, and masks provided to those who do not have one; and
• Increased cleaning and sanitization in the courtrooms.
The courts are also working on making it easier for the public to watch trials remotely so that fewer people would need to come into the courtroom physically to watch the proceeding.
The judges hope that with these changes, they may be ready to begin trials as early as September.
“When is it safe to start trials again? That’s a question with lots of moving parts,” said District Court Judge Carolyn Jewett. “The first part is: do we have the facilities and new equipment to hold a trial with social distancing precautions? We’ve been working very hard on this part. The second part is: once we have precautions in place, do local health officials think it’s safe to go forward? Is the spread of the virus well-controlled? We will have to wait and see on the second part, but in the meantime, we want to be ready.”
In order to be ready, both courts are sending out jury summons. Courts must send out summons to potential jurors several weeks before a potential trial date. Jurors must respond to the summons and turn in their response to the court within a week of receiving the summons. This lets the court and parties know how many potential jurors will actually show up to the courthouse on the day of the trial.
“Even with all our precautions, we know that some folks are at a higher risk of having serious complications from COVID-19,” said Superior Court Judge Kathryn Loring. “So, if you fall into the identified categories of high-risk individuals you can request to reschedule your jury service, and we will defer your jury service obligation for 12 months. This process will be explained in a letter with your summons.”
Jury service is a vital civic duty, and the jurors are an integral part of the process. If you have any questions, the courts want to know what your concerns are so we can make the process as safe as possible. You can send your questions to email@example.com, or call the Jury Information Hotline at 360-378-9407.