Texas “Zooms” Into Remote Jury Trials (Sort Of): Courtroom Trends

In what might be a first across the United States, Texas judges on Monday invited a jury pool to a court proceeding over a Zoom video teleconference.

According to Texas Lawyer (Juror Walks Off to Take Phone Call as Texas Tests First Jury Trial Via Zoom, written by Angela Morris), it went pretty smoothly, except for one juror, who wandered off screen during a break and couldn’t hear the judges calling him back. Senior Judge Keith Dean said it was the digital version of at the courthouse, when court staff occasionally have to track down a juror in the hallway taking a phone call. He eventually came back.

As the coronavirus pandemic shuttered courthouses across the nation this spring, Texas emerged as a leader in embracing Zoom video conferences for judges to continue holding court proceedings remotely. Texas judges have already been using the technology for bench trials, but not jury trials up to now.

Maybe they still haven’t – technically.  Monday’s hearing in an insurance dispute was actually a “summary jury trial,” which is an alternative dispute resolution process in which the parties participate in a one-day jury trial, followed the next day by a mediation session to attempt to settle the dispute. The jury selection was livestreamed on YouTube, and the rest of the proceeding was private.

For the first 30 minutes of the proceeding, 470th District Judge Emily Miskel of Collin County welcomed all of the 26 prospective jurors—another three people failed to report to jury duty—and asked what type of device they were connecting with, and patiently walked them through how to set up their their audio and video correctly.

Miskel, who only participated in the proceeding to handle the technological aspects of the Zoom meeting (tech support from a judge, wow!), added that she appreciated those prospective jurors who had called her office to make sure their jury duty summons was not a scam.  During the jury selection process, the attorneys questioned only 12 prospective jurors at a time. Miskel created a Zoom “breakout room” for the other 14 prospective jurors.  When the attorneys were asked to approach the bench, Miskel created a separate breakout room just for the judge and counsel.

Once the process was complete, Judge Dean announced that the attorneys for both sides had picked that first group of 12 jurors, which meant the 14 people who had been in a separate breakout room all along were “free to go about your day,” Dean said.

It was only a matter of time before jury selection – and eventually trials themselves – would be conducted via web conference because of the pandemic.  It will be interesting to see what issues arise, especially when some jurors may technically challenged and hackers try to work their way into the proceedings.  Regardless, this is certainly a more positive story for Texas courts than the one I covered a few days ago.

So, what do you think?  Do you think remote jury selection and trials being conducted is a good thing?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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