Courts across the country plan to keep hybrid models of remote jury selection, civil trials and limited criminal trials that were established during the pandemic, according to reports from various jurisdictions that cite better overall access, in some cases, and concerns about the digital equity, in others.
That includes King County Superior Court, which received nearly $10.9 million in Coronavirus Local Relief Funds to support the infrastructure to administer remote court processes in an attempt to bring down the “backlog” of court cases from mid-2021 through the end of 2022. That was after an initial influx of federal dollars earlier in the pandemic, allocated by the county.
According to quarterly reports, there were 8,515 pending civil cases and 4,188 pending criminal cases in the King County Superior Court system at the end of the first quarter of 2020. That was right as the pandemic was beginning locally, and the quarter ended just as Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency and ordered businesses and many government functions to shut down. King County courts shuttered in March 2020 and didn’t reopen until July of that year.
By the end of the fourth quarter of 2020, which was just as the vaccines were beginning to be rolled out to vulnerable populations, the overall number of pending civil cases had gone down to 7,778, but pending criminal cases had gone up to 6,083. That was despite a 28 percent decrease in the number of civil cases filed and an 11 percent decrease in the number of criminal cases filed in 2020, compared to the previous year.
According to a report about the coronavirus response issued by King County Superior Court in June 2022, the court set up processes for video hearings, remote jury selection and some remote trials in April and May 2020, although actual remote civil jury trials did not begin until that fall.
As of that report, all civil jury trials, jury selection and bench trials were conducted through videoconferencing systems. In King County, criminal trials continued to be held almost universally in person — the county set up a socially distanced court at a convention center in Bellevue in an attempt to keep trials going — but some criminal matters such as pretrial hearings for out-of-custody defendants were also remote.
Having the ability to do many of these systems remotely has been a benefit to the courts and, in many cases, potential jurors and people who need services such as protection orders, said Amy Roe, spokesperson for King County Superior Court.
King County court officials and prospective jurors said that things like remote jury selection, in particular, eased burdens on potential jurors by allowing them to participate from home. That meant no commute time, no taking time off of work and no arranging for child care to perform a mostly mandatory civic charge.
According to the survey conducted for the report, attorneys were less bullish on the practice — only 47 percent of attorneys said that videoconferencing made it easier to participate in jury duty compared to 89 percent of prospective juror respondents.
It also widened the prospective juror pool. Before the pandemic, the court would call on 50 jurors to be evaluated for a trial; when things went remote, 120 jurors were called. That was, in part, due to a higher number of “hardship excusals,” which largely had to do with jurors contracting COVID-19, being afraid of doing so, being responsible for child care or not having the financial resources to participate.
While there was hope expressed by respondents that this would result in greater juror diversity — and some anecdotal evidence that this had happened — reliance on internet-based juror pools is no guarantee of that.
Separate statistics from Seattle and King County show that households with higher incomes are more likely to have faster and/or more stable internet connections and the technology to access the internet than people of color and households with lower incomes.
Approximately 20 percent of King County residents live in places that are “underserved” when it comes to broadband internet. That term can mean a lot of things, but an area is underserved if broadband has not been adopted by 80 percent of residential customers, is priced at 20 percent above services of comparable speed in other areas of the county or if the median household income in the area is less than $30,000.
According to a 2020 study on broadband, access is significantly lower in South King County districts.
While prospective juror survey respondents reported positively about their experience, there was a notable disparity in the identities of jurors who participated in the survey. According to the survey, 76 percent of respondents were white, 12 percent were Asian, 1 percent were Latine and only 0.5 percent were Black. Nine percent did not answer the question.
The survey also showed some negative effects on courtroom staff who could not work remotely. They saw their responsibilities shift to the point that the report recommended changing job descriptions to reflect the new demands. That was in part due to requests from attorneys, who worked remotely in many cases, to do small tasks that they would normally perform.
“While each task request was relatively insignificant, the number of requests was quite large and added a tremendous burden to bailiffs, courtroom clerks, and other staff,” the report reads.
However, navigating digital systems and working with jurors who had difficulty with videoconferencing added to the burden to the point that the courts created a bailiff trainer position to make sure people had the training that they needed, Roe said.
Overall, it’s likely that remote jury selection, in specific, will continue after the pandemic, Roe said. An overall shift of selected court functions to remote options seems to be the norm in many court systems across the country. The Berkeley Research Group, a consultancy, wrote in a 2021 report on the psychology of remote hearings that “[i]t is widely accepted that virtual hearings and tribunals are here to stay in some form.
“However,” researchers wrote, “it’s unlikely that universal standards will be implemented.”
The pace of the shift to remote court options in the face of the pandemic also shows how fast the court system can move, when it has to, Roe said.
“I don’t think the scale of change would have happened if it wasn’t a huge crisis where it had to happen,” Roe said.
Disclosure: Real Change receives funding from King County for articles in this series. The county receives no advance notice of articles or editorial control.
Read more of the Dec. 28, 2022-Jan. 3, 2023 issue.