SALT LAKE CITY — More Utahns could be getting jury duty notices in the mail, as the state's court system digs out of a backlog of trials due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Judges are anticipating needing to hold more trials this year, since many simply couldn't go forward in 2020 because of the deadly virus. It has affected incarcerated defendants and even more simple cases because of precautions needed during the pandemic.
"This has been a source of concern for us. One of the challenges with the courts is, unlike any other institution in the state, judges have the ability to compel a person to come to court. Both to be a witness and testify, but also be a juror and sit in judgment in the case," Michael Drechsel, the assistant state courts administrator, said in an interview with FOX 13.
The Utah State Courts holds about 1,200 trials each year across the state. Of those, about 350 involve juries (the rest are bench trials before a judge alone). Because of COVID-related delays, the courts are looking at roughly 1,500 trials this year.
"We are all going to have to continue the number of trials we’ve got and would normally have scheduled in 2021 as well as all the cases that didn’t get tried in 2020," Third District Court Judge Todd Shaughnessy said in a recent meeting of the Utah Judicial Council.
For the few trials that have been held in 2020, it was certainly unique. Entire courtrooms were taken over with jurors seated where an audience would be in order to be physically-distant from one another. Jurors, witnesses, clerks, defendants and attorneys would all be COVID-tested during a trial. When a witness was called to testify, they'd be put in a special plexiglass box erected in the courtroom with its own ventilation system. Only then could they remove their mask.
Those health protocols are being loosened as vaccinations increase in the state, the council was told. So now, judges have to catch up.
"We’ve got dozens of them scheduled throughout the summer in anticipation of the relaxation of the standards and the ability to have more courtrooms available," Judge Shaughnessy said. "The new limitation or bottleneck that has emerged for us relates to jury selection."
It could mean that more Utahns may actually be called to serve on a jury. The Administrative Office of the Courts points out that there already is a sizable pool of prospective jurors. Of the 200,000 or so considered, only about 137,000 are deemed eligible. In a typical year, only 3,000 people actually get called up.
"You’re not considered to have served, you’re still back in the pool if you don’t show up for jury selection," warned Third District Court Judge Kara Pettit.
In 2020, the court system pivoted to online questionnaires and using WebEx for some jury selection making it easier than a trip to the courthouse, the judicial council was told. The majority of the backlogged court cases are in Salt Lake County, which is the state's most populous county. But other judges warned of potential problems with jury selection in rural counties.
"People will be getting the notices on a regular basis, but as long as we’re careful not to bring them in unless we have an actual trial in the smaller counties," said Wasatch County Justice Court Judge Brook Sessions.
To help with the backlog, the Utah State Legislature approved spending federal COVID relief money to bring some judges out of retirement just to oversee some trials, Drechsel told FOX 13.
Not every case that is scheduled will actually go to trial. As much as 80% of court cases end in a settlement or a plea bargain. But Fourth District Court Judge Derek Pullan urged his colleagues on the Utah Judicial Council to avoid scheduling too many trials, because a lot of the same lawyers and clerks will end up being overworked.
"I think we have to be sensitive to the fact that the same public defenders and same prosecutors are impacted and at some point it becomes unreasonable to expect the same people would be adequately prepared to try three first degree felony cases on the same day," he said.