A Texas state court recently presided over what is believed to be the first jury trial in the U.S. to be conducted over Zoom. The voir dire portion of the trial was streamed live over YouTube, enabling other lawyers and judges across the country to watch the process and learn from the nation's first remote-trial attempt.
Watching the Voir Dire Process Live on YouTube
Viewers could see the jurors' faces on the screen as they raised their hands to be put under oath to tell the truth during voir dire. Voir dire is the first step in a jury trial where the attorneys ask the panel of potential jurors questions to learn more about them and determine whether they can be fair and impartial in rendering a verdict in the case. Because voir dire usually requires anywhere from 30-60 people packed together in a tight courtroom, the parties and attorneys in this case agreed to undertake an initial attempt to try the case over Zoom to allow for distancing in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.
District Court Judge Emily Miskel oversaw the technical responsibilities while retired Judge Keith Dean presided over the trial from his home office. Many jurors appeared by video from their home; one juror even appeared to be attending from his backyard. For the most part, it appeared the voir dire process and remote jury selection proceeded with very few glitches.
Jury Trials by Zoom Enable Us to Continue to Pursue Justice During the Pandemic
This news is encouraging as we, ourselves, may be preparing to conduct jury trials by Zoom later in the year. While we are still able to conduct our usual day-to-day litigation activities—emails, phone calls and conferences, hearings, depositions, etc.—during the pandemic, jury trials were the only element of our practice that truly got postponed during the pandemic due to the need for distancing. Now, with the prospect of jury trial by Zoom, we are hopeful we can still proceed with trials we have scheduled in the fall and continue to pursue justice for our clients.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, courts throughout the country have determined to stay open to deliver justice without faltering, no matter the adjustments and sacrifices demanded, but also to protect staff, security, lawyers, parties, jurors, judges and the public from the risks of disease,” Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and co-chairman of the National Center for State Courts, said in a news release. “We are learning new technology and practices together.”
It's No Surprise the First Trial by Zoom Was a Suit by a Policyholder Against State Farm
We are encouraged by this spirit and desire to adapt and move forward even in times of social distancing. It is no surprise the case being tried via Zoom in Texas is a suit filed by a policyholder for damage to his home from wind and hail damage against State Farm for failing to pay the claim in full. The last thing we would want to see in light of the COVID pandemic is insurance companies being able to further deny and delay claims because attorneys are unable to force them to a jury trial, often the only way to make them pay the full amount that is owed. In this uncertain new age it is promising to think that when the jurors cannot come to the courtroom for safety reasons, that the courtroom can now safely come to them and justice, particularly against insurance companies that wrongfully delay and deny legitimate claims, can continue to be pursued.
You can read more about the first U.S. trial by Zoom here.
Chief Justice Charles Canady issued an order on May 21, 2020 creating a new pilot program for civil jury trials to be held using remote technology. It will explore ways to let one of the most central parts of the state justice system – jury trials – begin again using health-related distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
This plan will include a transition to Phase 2 in the Florida state courts when each trial and appeals court has:
- Met five benchmark criteria: (a) no COVID-19 cases in the courthouse within 14 days or the use of deep cleaning if such cases have occurred; (b) local and state restrictive orders permit the activity; (c) the community shows at least 14 days of improvements in case reporting; (d) adequate testing programs are in place; and (e) other building occupants and justice system partners have been consulted.
- Developed an operational plan addressing implementation of the COVID-19 Workgroup's report. The plan must be updated regularly to reflect advancements in best practices.
Learn more about Florida's remote-trial pilot program at www.floridabar.org/the-florida-bar-news/new-order-launches-remote-civil-jury-trial-pilot-program-sets-new-health-safety-measures/.