First remote jury trial shows potential for widespread use
Let the record show that history was made at 8 a.m. CDT Monday, May 18, 2020, in northeast Texas, where 26 potential jurors met in the comfort of their homes for the nation’s first-ever remote jury trial, presided over by two judges, one of whom was making sure the technology worked the way it should.
“This is the first time this is happening in Texas and maybe the first time anywhere in the country,” Judge Emily Miskel, who was handling the technology, told the jurors, who logged in on cell phones and laptops. “Thank you to those who contacted the court to ask if this was a scam. . . . We sincerely thank you for giving this a try.”
Retired Judge Keith Dean then addressed the jurors: “Welcome to the Collin County Courthouse. You’re not at home on jury duty. You’re on jury duty. You just happen to be at home. The courthouse came to you.”
As he would if the trial occurred in a courthouse, Judge Dean told the potential jurors they must not discuss the case with anyone or conduct any independent investigation, such as using the Internet to try to find more information. “The same rules apply,” he said. “This (jury duty) is very serious business.”
The case, which was supposed to go to trial in March, involved a man who sued State Farm for denying his claim after a wind-and-hail storm damaged his office building on March 26, 2017. Judge Miskel separated the 12 potential jurors with the lowest jury numbers from the others, and the jury selection process began with the plaintiff’s attorney addressing the 12. “This is as strange as it is for us as it is for you,” he told them.
During voir dire, one potential juror said she is a State Farm customer, and a few others said they also suffered damage from that storm. Despite that, they said they could be fair and impartial jurors. At various times during the jury selection process, a couple of the jurors briefly made eye contact with others in their homes. One appeared to say, “Get out.”
After lawyers for both sides asked their questions, there was a break, and everyone except for one juror quickly returned. As everyone waited for the juror to return, Judge Dean explained that this also happens during trials at the courthouse. “We have to go find people who are in the hallway talking on their phones,” he said, and bring them back into the courtroom.
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. Then Judge Dean announced that the lawyers accepted all 12 of the people they questioned and that the other 14 prospective jurors would be dismissed. He also said the lawyers decided to use alternative dispute resolution, a process other than litigation. That decision closed the trial to the public. The jurors ended up hearing from witnesses and seeing exhibits during an abbreviated, one-day trial and then rendered a non-binding verdict, which is private. Armed with that verdict, the lawyers will enter into mediation later this week to attempt a settlement.
Before the jurors were dismissed, they were asked about the experience. Judge Miskel said during an interview the next day that she was pleasantly surprised how enthusiastic the jurors were about the remote trial. Those who served on in-person juries said they preferred serving this way because it was more convenient and because it was easier to see the exhibits.
Judge Miskel, who said she was asked on April 19 to find a trial to do remotely, said it was challenging to master the technology in such a brief time. “We’ve been forced to learn quickly,” she said. “Normally, this process—from request to execution—would have taken two years, not one month.”
In the future, she predicts courts will use a hybrid approach. “I think we’ll discover that portions of trials will be better to do remotely than in a courtroom,” she added.
Judge Miskel also thinks remote trials will be a boon to access to justice, especially for people who live in rural places where no lawyers live. “Lawyers will be more likely to take cases,” she said, “if they don’t have to drive hours to represent their clients.”
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Jury trial webinar scheduled for Friday
Don’t miss the next jury trial webinar at 3 p.m. EDT Friday, May 22. The webinar will focus on innovative technologies and responsible health and safety practices needed to resume jury trials.