Dr. Cynthia Cohen
Jury Duty Amidst COVID-19 Fears
JURORS’ FEARS ABOUT JURY SERVICE.
While the courts prepare jury summons, jurors’ attitudes toward the pandemic affect their perceptions about coming into the courthouse for jury duty. Our Verdict Success LLC study with 400 online mock jurors in Los Angeles County gathered data during September to shine light on jurors’ attitudes about jury service and the pandemic. This 2020 survey reports that 55.5% of mock jurors have fears about in-person jury service with safety measures in place at the courthouse. The percentage of jurors’ fears drops to 40.3% when an effective vaccine becomes available.
How COVID-19 affects jury service is a concern for jurors, judges, trial teams, parties, court administrators, experts, consultants and trial technology teams. When the pandemic forced court closures in March 2020, jury trials across America were suspended. Before Los Angeles courts began opening in August for criminal jury trials (and limited preferential civil trials to follow), safety measures were put into place in the courtrooms. There are many impressive measures taken by both state and federal court systems with courtrooms reconfigured with plastic partitions, social distancing jurors in the public gallery rather than the jury box, seating the witness in the bailiff’s box, using a separate courtroom for jury deliberations, and cameras in the courts for public viewing in state court trials.
HARDSHIP CASES WILL RISE.
Besides safety issues, hardship is an extra concern with this pandemic. In our study 21.8% of the mock jurors reported they were out of work because of COVID-19. This 21.8% statistic, likely is in addition to, or in conjunction with, the percentage of jurors who previously claimed hardship when called to jury duty. Many employed jurors lacking employment benefits or paid support for jury duty, typically requested hardship.
CONSPIRACY THEORY AND EDUCATION LEVEL.
While the pandemic is a public health crisis, some people tend to disbelieve public health reports. Mock jurors were asked whether they believed the pandemic was a hoax or whether they voluntarily wear a mask in public. In our study, 5.8% believe that COVID-19 is a hoax. A forced-choice response question limits anyone voluntarily donning a mask, but simultaneously believing the pandemic is a hoax.
This 5.8% finding, however approximates PEW Research Center’s June 2020 study that 5% say this conspiracy is definitely true that powerful people intentionally planned the coronavirus outbreak. PEW’s study reports 71% of Americans had heard of a conspiracy theory circulating widely online. PEW’s study looked at partisan affiliation as well as demographics, including education level. According to PEW, educational attainment is an especially important factor when it comes to perceptions of the conspiracy theory. Nearly half of Americans with a high school diploma or less education (48%) say the theory is probably or definitely true. As the education level increases, the belief in the conspiracy theory decreases.
FUTURE OUTLOOK FOR JURY SERVICE.
Jury service is necessary for our system of justice. While criminal jury trials and preferential civil jury trials move forward at a slow pace, in-person civil jury trials will be further postponed as COVID-19 numbers spike following Thanksgiving and through the winter holidays. Online jury trials pick up some of the slack. Many courts instituted full online jury trials or hybrid online jury trials. The National Center for State Courts in conjunction with ASTC’s Online Jury Project is studying the efficacy of using online jury trials now and retaining online jury trials post pandemic. COVID-19 vaccines are around the bend as Pfizer and Moderna, Inc. are set to get FDA approval in December and other vaccines are not far behind. The pandemic is expected to subside in late 2021 when vaccines are rolled out nationally, first to front-line hospital workers and to nursing homes, then to those 65 and over. Normalcy for in-person jury service will return when jurors can return to the jury box and feel safe sitting amongst their peers.