Monday, March 22, 2021

I Survived Picking a Jury In Person (And It Wasn't That Bad)

 



On Friday, March 19, 2021, I participated in a live, in-person jury selection while we are still in the midst of a (hopefully receding) COVID-19 pandemic.

The case was pending in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas.  I represented an out-of-possession landlord defendant in a dog bite case involving a dog that was not owned by the tenant on the lease and which dog bite did not even occur on the rental property.  Rather, the dog bite occurred a block away from the rental property.  The Plaintiff sued my client, the tenant, and also sued the tenant's son and the son's girlfriend who was listed on the dog license as the owner of the dog in question.  The Plaintiff was attempting to allege that the tenant's son and the dog lived at the rental property even though his mother, who was the tenant, denied this allegation.  But I digress.

Although the case was pending in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas, the jury selection actually took place at the beautiful new Jewish Community Center in Kingston, PA.  This Center is just down the same road where the law firm of Hourigan, Kluger & Quinn is located.  The Center is so new it did not even come up on my GPS which was one more thing to add to my anxiety as I drove down to Luzerne County in an effort to find out where my first live trial in over a year would begin.

If you have to pick a jury there, please call me and I will tell you how to get there if you are not sure.

In the time leading up to this trial, I was anxious and continually cursed at the thought at having to go through what would have been a 4-5 day trial.  Yet, as you will read, it all turned out to be fine.

At conferences prior to trial, the presiding judge, Judge Lesa Gelb, assured myself and Plaintiff's Attorneys, Katie Nealon and Ciarra DeNaples of Munley Law, that all pandemic safety precautions would be in place.  In addition to having jury selection in a separate larger space, Judge Gelb explained that the jurors would be spread out through the Courtroom in both the jury box and the gallery.

Cameras and TVs would be used in the courtroom to make sure that all jurors could easily see and hear the witnesses.  At least two of the witnesses were also going to be allowed to testify via Zoom from their homes due to their fears of attending trial in person given their own health issues or the fact that they cared for elderly family members.

Prior to trial, counsel was also given a sheet that listed COVID-19 related protocols that would be followed in terms of the presentation of exhibits at trial.  The Court encourage counsel to present as many of the exhibits as possible up on the big screen as opposed to by way of paper exchanges.  Another protocol required counsel to bring at least 12 copies of a particular exhibit if the exhibit was going to be produced to the jury so that one document would not have to be passed down through 12 people.

As stated, the jury selection proceedings took place offsite.  

On the morning of jury selection, everyone who came into the Jewish Community Center had to have a mask on and everyone had their temperature taken.

The voir dire took place in a large ballroom within the Center.  In that large ballroom there were counsel tables spread out along the long side of the room.  Between those tables, on a low elevated platform was a table for the Judge.  Next to that raised table, but on the floor was a table for the court reporter to work from.  All of these referenced tables, i.e., for the attorneys, the Judge, and the court reporter, were all in a row.

Spread out through the rest of the room in perpendicular fashion from the row of tables were 10 rows of 4 chairs for the jurors to sit in.  Each chair had a piece of paper with a large print number on it that they could raise when they had a response to any of the voir dire questions.

What was noticably missing were microphones.  For a hearing impaired person like myself who wears hearing aids and who reads lips to help him hear, the addition of microphones would be a welcome addition to voir dire proceedings in this setting in which people are spread out across a large area and their mouths are covered by masks.

As they arrived at the Center, the jurors were checked in out in the foyer and allowed to enter the room one at a time.  They came into the ballroom their numerical order, 1 through 40, and were immediately directed to their seat.  The process was orderly and well done by the courthouse staff and the sheriff's deputies.  The jurors seemed nervous, but not scared.

Although everyone was 6 feet part, it was still a bit leery to be in a room with over 50 other people present.

Prior to voir dire starting, the court held a conference of attorneys to address any objections with regards to the proposed voir dire questions.  This was done in an effort to make the voir dire more efficient.

Also, in part to avoid counsel having to move about the room when asking follow up questions, the court noted that the attorneys involved could ask the typical first round of questions of voir dire to the jurors.  The court and counsel would then mark down all of the positive responses based on which jurors held up their numbered card that they each had at their chair when they arrived.  After the first round of questions were asked by the Judge, Plaintiff's Counsel, and defense counsel, would retired to a smaller conference room and each juror who had answered positively would then be summoned to that side room to meet with the Judge and counsel for the follow-up "can you be fair and impartial" questions regarding all of the original questions they answered affirmatively.

Judge Gelb started the proceedings by giving great thanks to the jurors for appearing in response to their juror summons.  I was not privy to whether there were people who summoned but did not show up.  Judge Gelb also did her best to make sure the jurors were comfortable and felt safe.

The initial questioning went off without a hitch and then the Judge and counsel retired to the side conference room which was large as well and in which all could spread out a bit.  The Court and counsel got through more questioning of approximately three jurors before settlement talks commenced that resulted in a resolution of the case.

The Court and Counsel then all went back into the ballroom where the jurors were waiting and Judge Gelb announced that the case had been settled and then proceeded to again give great thanks to the jurors for showing up to honor their duty to serve as jurors.  Judge Gelb noted to the jurors that they were great Patriots in helping our jury system to work under still trying conditions.

The jurors were then asked to leave in an orderly and spread out fashion which they did.

And so, the lesson appears to be that, while the thought of having to go back into the courtrooms may give rise to anxious feelings, the Court and its staff and the Sheriff's Department, at least in Luzerne County, are doing all that they can to make sure that it is a safe and orderly event.

If anyone would like further feedback or information in this regard, please do not hesitate to contact me at dancummins@CumminsLaw.net

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