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Updated Guidelines For In-Person Civil Jury Trials In The First Judicial District Of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania
March 30, 2021
March 30, 2021
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On March 4, 2021, the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania resumed in-person civil jury trials. This decision and the protocols surrounding it were based on guidance from public health officials as well as current statistical data on the COVID-19 pandemic. The following is a discussion of the new protocols surrounding in-person civil jury trials.

General Requirements

The First Judicial District requires all persons, even those who are vaccinated, to wear a CDC-compliant face mask- one that properly fits over one’s nose and mouth- when inside City Hall. No one can remove their mask at any time unless they are drinking from a water bottle. Additionally, people are encouraged, but not required, to wear two masks. People also must maintain a distance of six feet from one another, and courtrooms have been reconfigured to ensure proper distancing. There are occupancy limits in each courtroom, which judicial staff will strictly enforce. At the pretrial conference, counsel will agree to the number of persons who will be in the courtroom as well as the number of days for trial exclusive of jury selection but inclusive of deliberation. Although there will be limits on the persons allowed in the courtroom, live streaming of the trial will be available on YouTube at http://www.courts.phila.gov/livestreams. Additionally, courtrooms and jury selection rooms have enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols as well as increased ventilation. In particular, windows in the courtrooms will be partially opened regardless of the temperature outside to provide enhanced ventilation.

Jury Selection

In March, jury selection will begin with two juries selected on Thursday and two juries selected on Friday. Then, beginning in April, jury selection will increase to three juries on Thursday and three juries on Friday. Before reporting to the jury assembly room, every prospective juror will be asked screening questions[1] and if anyone answers “yes” to any of the questions, they will be immediately excused from jury duty. These same questions will also be asked of jurors every day during trial. If a juror’s response has changed, judicial staff will alert the presiding judge so that appropriate action can be taken.

On the date of jury selections, counsel must report to Courtroom 232 by 9:00 a.m. to be told which of three rooms - 195, 243/232 or 195/380 - will be used for jury selection in their case. When counsel goes to their assigned courtroom, they will be escorted to a large private room to meet with judicial staff to prepare for jury selection. After all 40 jurors are seated in the courtroom, the presiding trial judge or judicial staff will give a general description of the case, introduce counsel and the parties as well as ask general voir dire questions. Counsel and the parties must stand on either side of the podium when introduced.

Once general voir dire is complete, everyone (including any parties) will be excused from the courtroom except for counsel, who will then conduct individual voir dire. Individual voir dire will be done either in the courtroom or a separate room, wherein only the juror[2], counsel and judicial staff will be seated and must remain socially distanced from one another. After each juror is questioned, judicial staff will disinfect the chair in which that juror sat before calling the next juror.

In conducting peremptory strikes, counsel may no longer “pass the pad” between each other; rather, judicial staff will put the document on a table and counsel will take turns using their own pen to exercise their peremptory strikes. Counsel cannot pick up the paper with their hands. Alternatively, counsel can use the room where individual voir dire took place and alternate announcing their peremptory strikes to court staff, who will then record it. Once completed, judicial staff will collect the document and announce the jurors who were selected. All trials will begin on the following Monday unless otherwise ordered.

Trial Procedure

Every trial will require two courtrooms: (1) a “trial” courtroom, and (2) a “jury courtroom (a room for the jury to assemble during trial as well as deliberate at the conclusion of trial). To ensure compliance with social distancing, all jurors will be assigned seats in the public gallery of the courtroom instead of the jury box. In the “well” of the courtroom, counsel and parties will sit at tables where each chair is six feet from each other. Counsel may only move chairs/tables with approval from the presiding judge. Plexiglass has been installed in areas where social distancing cannot be maintained (e.g., around the witness stand). Also, mobile plexiglass barriers are available in the courtroom if an unanticipated need for plexiglass arises.

Given that courtrooms have been significantly reconfigured to comply with COVID-19 protocols, counsel should see the courtroom before trial begins.[3] Counsel is encouraged to arrange for all technical/AV setup to be completed the Friday before trial as long as the courtroom is not otherwise in use. Counsel must maintain a list of the contact information for all persons participating in-person at trial so it can be provided, if necessary, to judicial staff for contact tracing purposes. During the course of trial, counsel must conduct daily screenings of everyone participating in-person in trial to assess their exposure to or symptoms of COVID-19, and if anyone answers yes to the screening questions, counsel must advise the presiding judge.

With the permission of the presiding judge, counsel can use the podium to make opening or closing statements as long as they abide by social distancing protocols. Otherwise, they must remain seated. In general, counsel must remain seated during trial, including when questioning witnesses. All trial participants will either use microphone stands that are contactless or wireless microphones, which will be disinfected by judicial staff at least twice a day.

All witness testimony must be presented in-person and cannot be done through advanced technology, such as Zoom. In order to reduce time between witnesses, the next witness to be called to testify may come to City Hall 15 minutes before their expected testimony and then sit outside the courtroom until instructed to enter by judicial staff. Counsel may use their cellphones to text or email with staff or witnesses, but such communications must be limited to instructing a witness when to come to the City Hall. Counsel may also use their cellphones to text or email with opposing counsel about stipulations, scheduling issues and other trial-related issues.

Counsel must display all documents and other evidence on a television or projection screen unless otherwise permitted by the presiding judge. If the judge allows paper documents, counsel must ensure there are enough copies for each person in the room, including jurors, counsel, witnesses, and the judge. All paper documents will be distributed by judicial staff who has sanitized their hands. Counsel may also use posterboard/flip charts on an easel if granted permission to do so by the presiding judge.

Sidebars are strongly discouraged. As such, counsel must raise all evidentiary and other trial issues with the presiding judge before trial, during any recess or after trial has adjourned for the day. In the limited circumstances where a sidebar is required during the examination of a witness, judicial staff will announce a recess and the jury will go to the “jury” courtroom. During any breaks/recesses, trial participants must either remain in their seats or leave City Hall; no one may loiter in the hallways of City Hall.

[1] The questions are as follows: (1) Are you currently experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, loss of taste or smell)?; (2) Have you tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days; and (3) Have you come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 14 days?

[2] If it is being done in room 380, five jurors are escorted in at a time.

[3] Counsel may either email Stanley Thompson at Stanley.thompson@courts.phila.gov or request to see the room after jury selection.