Your day in court will proceed with pandemic precautions

Area courts updating juror rolls
Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, July 22, 2020
Seeking a few good jurors

Beaverhead County Clerk of District Court Carly Anderson (pictured in the jury box at Fifth Judicial District Court) and other court clerks in the county and city of Dillon are in the process of updating their jury pools. Area clerks update the roster annually; potential jurors for the pool are picked at random. Casey S. Elliott photo

A worldwide pandemic will not keep residents from getting their day in court in front of a jury of their peers.

Area courts are in the process of updating jury pools, an annual ritual where a random group of county and city U.S. citizens are selected as potential jurors for local trials. Judges and their clerks are following state and federal public health guidelines to ensure any selected juror is as protected as possible if a court trial were to take place.

Though final plans have not been ironed out, both Justice Court and Fifth Judicial District Court clerks have similar ideas of how to accomplish a trial, and other court clerks around the state are helping inform those plans with their own experiences.

“We haven’t nailed it down, but it is being discussed,” Beaverhead County Clerk of District Court Carly Anderson said. “We don’t have exact plans yet – things change so rapidly. I have (heard from) other clerks in other places that held jury trials.”

A recent trial in Libby (Lincoln County) was held in the local high school gymnasium, so all jurors and court officials could be physically separated, she said; other courts have had to reschedule trials as individuals who were to take place were diagnosed with COVID-19.

The District Court courtroom is likely large enough to hold a trial and provide physical distancing, but jury selection may need to be held in a larger location, Anderson said. District Court has held jury selection at the Depot Theater in the past for large jury selections.

Justice Court Clerk Cheryl Power said her court will mirror what District Court decides to do, and will provide masks, hand sanitizer, disinfection and regular cleaning for its trials.

All Montana courts draw jury pools similarly. Eligible jurors are in a state system which receives the information from a number of state sources, such as the Secretary of State’s office for voter records, or Montana’s motor vehicle division for driver’s license information. Potential jurors must be residents of the jurisdiction and U.S. citizens; those with felony convictions cannot serve (though a person’s right to serve on a jury can be restored in Montana). A court’s potential jurors are sent to each court’s jury program; the names should not overlap with other area courts’ lists.

In District Court, Anderson pulls 650 names annually out of that pool, and roughly around 375 are determined to be able to serve that year. From that list are the randomly-chosen names for a particular jury. Justice Court typically pulls 400 names from the overall list for the year, Power said.

The city of Lima draws roughly 60 names for its jury pool annually, Anderson said, and the city of Dillon approximately 400 to 450.

The number of jurors selected for a pool in a particular case is decided by the judge and the attorneys. All the potential jurors then go through a process the first day of a potential trial called voir dire, with some people excused for different reasons. Anderson said she normally pulls 60 to 75 people for that first day, with a typical jury being 12 people and an alternate juror. Justice Court generally draws 30 individuals for a particular trial as part of the jury selection process. Power said their juries are generally six people.

Both courts include a document notifying jurors they have been selected that year, which outlines what it means to be selected. Potential jurors are asked to fill out a questionnaire with basic information, which is kept on file with the court. Those questionnaires are provided to both attorneys in an upcoming jury trial, and are used as part of the selection process.

The number of trials per year is random, both clerks said. The most she had in a year was four, all back-to-back, Anderson said; at one point District Court went through a two-year period without a jury trial. Power said she could not remember the last time her court held a jury trial.

For the pandemic, Fifth Judicial District Court Judge Luke Berger determined he will not automatically exclude a juror for fear of catching the coronavirus.

“COVID general requests are not enough,” Anderson said. “If you say you are scared because of COVID and you won’t come in if selected, (Berger) won’t excuse you. It will be addressed on a case-by-case basis if a person is drawn for a jury. I expect the judge will review each and make the appropriate decision.”

Power said Judge Candy L. Hoerning will do something similar.

Both clerks stressed the importance of serving when called for jury duty.

“It’s your civic duty as a citizen of the United States of America. You never know when you might be asking for jurors to make a decision for you,” Anderson said. “Every person that is involved with the court somehow deserves their fair shot, and a fair trial. (Jury duty) is how we make it fair.”

“Every single defendant has the right to a jury trial before their peers,” Power agreed. “If the tables were turned and you were a defendant, you’d want people to be here, to be alert, to be concerned, to be caring, to be fair, to be honest. I know if I was ever a defendant, I would want a fair and impartial jury, and not people that just want to go home, or are falling asleep.”

Serving on a jury is often seen by people as a burden, which Anderson said is a misconception.

“People are just terrified about it. They’re terrified of putting judgement on others,” she said. “It’s not that bad – I never had a juror come up to me and say it was their most horrible experience ever. I’ve had a ton of jurors come up and say it was the most interesting experience they’ve had, that they learned so much, and they were so glad they were picked.”