The COVID-19 pandemic has ground the justice system to a halt — just as it has so many other things.
But with 2020 behind us, and 2021 holding the promise of widespread vaccinations, everybody wants to know: what’s next?
So we wanted to spend a blog post updating you on the status of things.
First, what we are currently facing:
As everyone knows, the best way to slow transmission of the coronavirus is to avoid group gatherings. This has obviously, and understandably, impacted our ability to convene juries, a cornerstone of the judicial system.
The impact has been most stark in criminal cases, where thousands of defendants, unwilling to accept a plea, remain jailed awaiting their constitutionally-guaranteed day in court. As the New York Times recently noted, since the onset of COVID-19, there have only been nine criminal jury trials in all of New York City.
In St. Clair County, there has only been one criminal jury trial. In Madison County, there were just two.
Since March, lawyers, judges and other government officials have been trying to figure out how to solve the problem.
If jurors cannot sit side by side in a jury box, then they have to spread out in a courtroom. This requires rooms large enough to ensure at least six feet between not just the juries, but also the parties, their lawyers, witnesses, the judge, and other courtroom personnel. And it requires a lot of plexiglass. Which means retrofitting existing courtrooms, and turning other, larger rooms *into* courtrooms.
This all takes time, work, and money. And that assumes you have the space in the first place.
The logistics extend beyond the actual trial. For example, you need an even larger gathering place for potential jurors — in the average case, that’s 40 to 50 people.
Ideally, that place is on the first floor, because people cannot safely ride elevators unless they do so one at a time, which could take hours.
But most courthouses don’t have such spaces on the first floor. St. Clair County certainly doesn’t. And even fewer have the money.
All of which helps explain why the problem has proved impossible to solve.
In May, St. Clair County suspended civil jury trials until the end of 2020. Madison County initially only suspended civil jury trials through the summer, before extending it in July. It remains in place.
The ripple effects of these moves are far-reaching.
Without the threat of juries, insurance companies have no reason to offer full settlement value on existing cases. So they haven’t.
That forces plaintiffs to choose between accepting a discount — often a steep one — or waiting, and waiting, and waiting for justice.
Fortunately, with vaccines, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel.
But it will still take time. So here’s what you can reasonably expect in the year ahead when it comes to the judicial system.
Once enough of the community is vaccinated, jury trials can safely resume. However, because criminal defendants have a constitutional speedy trial right, and many of them remain in pretrial custody within the jail, they will get priority.
Even large courthouses only have the capacity to conduct four or five jury trials at a time — and that’s in the best of circumstances.
Which this obviously isn’t.
The Chief Judge of St. Clair County has indicated that he hopes civil jury trials can resume by later in the summer of 2021. Madison County shares that hope.
Yes, that seems like a long way off.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done in the meantime.
Fortunately, we don’t need the actual resumption of trials in order for insurance companies to start acting responsibly. The mere threat of a trial date should be enough to bring them back to the negotiating table in good faith.
The pace of depositions has been increasing — especially since Zoom means insurance companies cannot insist on delaying a deposition until it is safe for the defense lawyer to travel there in person.
And even without reliable trial dates, judges are recognizing just how clogged their dockets will become, and are pushing parties to start thinking hard about mediations.
All of this means that the wheels of civil justice will soon start grinding again.
Another reason to be hopeful about 2021.
So we cannot emphasize this enough: Now is the time to contact us about your case, so that when things finally do get back to normal, you’ll be ready.