King County Superior Court Wants to Make Virtual Jury Selection—and Trials—Permanent

 

King County Courthouse
Image via King County.

By Paul Kiefer

The instructions that accompany a jury summons in King County changed dramatically when the COVID-19 pandemic upended court operations: instead of directions to a courthouse, jurors now receive an email from a bailiff with a video link. Now, King County Superior Court judges say that the switch to virtual jury selection—originally adopted as an emergency measure—is too useful to abandon once the pandemic winds down.

In a bid to make the change permanent, King County Superior Court staff are petitioning the Washington State Supreme Court to continue using video calls for jury selections once the state’s emergency order expires.

For Judge Sean O’Donnell, the shift to virtual jury selections is a matter of efficiency. Before the pandemic, he said, the response rate to jury summons was abysmal; as a consequence, the court had to delay trials until it had enough qualified jurors to fill a bench. “When you got a summons, you had to make the trek to a courthouse, wait in a hallway in case your name was called, file into a courtroom and go through questioning—it could take a full day,” he said.

Online jury selection, he added, only takes an hour. “I think for judiciary, this has to be the future,” O’Donnell said. “The convenience factor is huge. The physical safety benefits, in comparison coming down to the courthouse on Third Avenue with all the chaos nearby, are huge. If we can just reduce the footprint of citizens who have to physically come down, we can make performing your civic duty more attainable for more people.”

The virtual hearing, O’Donnell added, also gives attorneys more time to question prospective jurors. “We’ve been able to increase the quantity of information we collect from jurors, and that helps attorneys make calls about who is or is not appropriate to serve on a jury,” he said.

But for some attorneys navigating virtual jury selection, the new setup isn’t perfect. “I’ve found it a bit more difficult to get people to open up,” said Brent Hart, a Seattle defense attorney who recently took part in a virtual jury selection. “For some reason, it seems like it’s harder to get people to unmute than it is to get them to raise their hand in a courtroom.”

And while Hart agrees that the virtual jury selection process can streamline court proceedings, he added that attorneys have a harder time reading potential jurors’ behavior through a computer screen. “If someone’s doing legal research, looking up stuff about a case that they shouldn’t be looking up, we can’t tell,” he said. “We don’t actually have eyes on them—only the illusion of eyes on them.”

But both O’Donnell and Hart agreed that a more efficient jury selection process will play an important role in working through the superior court’s looming backlog of criminal cases. “We have thousands and thousands of criminal cases—some very serious—that have stacked up during the pandemic,” O’Donnell said, “and being able to select juries faster has helped.”

For now, jurors selected for criminal trials usually need to attend court hearings in person, but the superior court is also petitioning the state to make virtual civil trials a permanent feature of King County’s judicial system. The supreme court won’t rule on the two requests until next year.

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