Texas court holds first US jury trial via videoconferencing

DALLAS (AP) — The potential jurors popped onto the screen one by one. They confirmed their names and told the judge how they were connecting to the court: on laptops, tablets and iPhones.

There were some wireless issues and camera problems, but eventually 26 Texans in separate boxes raised their hands for the judge and together swore the juror’s oath, beginning the experiment of conducting a civil jury trial entirely over Zoom.

The coronavirus pandemic has crippled courts nationwide, putting many cases on indefinite hold and leaving judges trying to manage some hearings via videoconferencing. The delays have kept some defendants in jail longer, exposing them to possible outbreaks. And the virus even upended how the Supreme Court operates, with the justices hearing oral arguments by phone for the first time in the court’s history.

The test jury-trial-by-video that was held in suburban Dallas this week could reveal a possible path forward in which jurors are kept safely distanced while cases are allowed to proceed until the coronavirus threat has receded enough to resume some semblance of normal life.

It also raises complex questions about security, a person’s right to a fair trial and whether virtual deliberation might prevent 12 people from forming the bonds needed to hash out justice.

“No one is saying tomorrow we’re going to start trying serious felonies over Zoom,” said District Judge Emily Miskel, who coordinated technology for the trial. “But I think there are many civil trials where parties might agree that this is a good way to resolve it given the uncertainty of when you’re ever going to get an in-person civil jury trial.”

The Collin County court held the so-called summary trial — a one-day civil proceeding with a non-binding verdict — on Monday as an experiment in restarting parts of the justice system that ground to a halt because of the coronavirus. It was over a disputed insurance claim that was originally set to be heard in-person in March. According to the National Center for State Courts, which has tracked court functions during the pandemic, it’s the first remote jury trial ever in the United States.

Those involved seemed pleased with the process.

Jury selection was streamed live on YouTube, but most of the rest was private because summary trials are confidential civil proceedings meant to give the parties the option of settling before an actual trial.

During jury selection, lawyers for both sides asked people on the call to raise their hands in response to questions about potential bias. When a hand popped onto the screen, the lawyers would ask follow-ups or note the juror’s number.