Ready, set, ZOOM. Courtrooms and legal technology are transforming at a rapid pace in response to the COVID-19 pandemic environment and Texas may be leading the way. According to the Court Technology Bulletin, 26 potential jurors used the videoconferencing platform Zoom to attend a voir dire in Collins County for an insurance case. James McMillan’s article, “First Remote Jury Trial Shows Potential for Widespread Use” details the success of this experiment – as well as the pitfalls. Collin County District Court Judge Emily Miskel was present to ensure effective technology as well overseeing access to the call, allowing each juror to enter after confirming their name and device of choice.
“For centuries, if you got jury duty, you’ve got to go to the courthouse for jury duty,” Judge Dean said. “But this time, jury duty has come to you.”
One judge presided while the other was present (again, virtually) to ensure the technology was effective and accessible to all. If you’ve been participating in virtual meetings for work or family and family, this session would look familiar, representing a cross section of Zoomers – those who have artfully arranged the background of a home office, those who set up a laptop in the kitchen and peer into the camera with uncertainty, and those who choose to chill on the couch with a smartphone. Despite the appearance of informality, it is important to note, as Collin County District Court Senior Judge Keith Dean reminded the group, that googling the details of the case is prohibited. The potential jurors were also reminded that no one else, including family members, could be in the room during the session.
The virtual voir dire included a potential juror who did not return from the virtual “break” on his respective screen, leading to a halt in the process. One of the two presiding judges commented that this reflected the same compliance of an actual courtroom – all jurors must be present.
McMillan describes the awkward scene: “About seven minutes later, the missing juror returned, and Judge Dean gently reminded him that nothing can happen until all jurors are together. The tardy juror said nothing.”
The voir dire proceeded as it would have in an actual courtroom; the potential jurors were instructed by the attorneys to raise their hands if they had questions and then specific jurors were called upon. The entire voir dire process was completed in about 45 minutes and was considered to be a success overall, possibly paving the way to more virtual jury participation in the future.
12 jurors were accepted, and 14 were dismissed. The actual trial was not public as the attorneys chose alternative dispute resolution instead of litigation.
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