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SALT LAKE CITY — A group of judges from each level of Utah’s court system will soon get to work on a plan to safely handle jury trials and other proceedings during the pandemic, possibly allowing for virtual verdicts.
Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant issued a Friday order directing a group of seven judges — three from rural Utah and three from urban parts of the state, plus an appeals court judge — to hash out the plan.
His directive comes after the state on Friday relaxed some restrictions on businesses and allowed gatherings to grow from a maximum of 10 up to 20 people.
“We want to make sure that prospective jurors and courts staff are kept safe from the virus, but we have to figure out how we can achieve holding a jury trial during the pandemic,” especially if it continues into fall and winter like some public health experts have projected, said Utah courts spokesman Geoffrey Fattah.
The wheels of justice have remained in motion in the Beehive State, but they have slowed down since mid-March, with trials and many hearings postponed. Yet the state’s courthouses have stayed open to handle questions, hold hearings for those jailed on criminal charges and issue protective orders, among other matters deemed pressing. No one with symptoms of the coronavirus is allowed in, however, and those who have been exposed to anyone with symptoms are being directed to stay away.
All jury trials, meanwhile, have been postponed until June.
During the jury selection process in felony cases, dozens of possible jurors are typically held together before a judge and attorneys cull the group to eight or 12, plus alternates. The longtime system has not had to contemplate the rules of social distancing until now.
In the search for a workaround, potential tech solutions are on the table, Fattah said. He noted bench trials — wherein a judge, not a jury, weighs evidence and delivers a verdict — are already being held remotely.
Since March, many judges, clerks and attorneys have been working from home and tuning into proceedings over video conference.
In the one-month period ending April 29, the courts held more than 5,400 meetings or hearings online, with nearly 29,600 participants, according to data provided by the state’s court system.
Durrant’s Friday order says such remote arguments should continue, or simply be conducted in court papers, unless an exception needs to be made for an in-person hearing.
The group of judges in the new workgroup, whose names have not yet been announced, will also determine how to safely hold hearings wherein a defendant, court staff and attorneys gather in the same room.
Each of the three rural and three urban judges will represent either the juvenile system, which handles youth delinquency and child custody cases; the justice courts, which predominantly oversee lower-level misdemeanors, citations and small claims; and the district courts, which hear most civil cases and more serious criminal ones.
Durrant’s order also directs judges from Cache County to Kanab to squeeze in nonessential hearings when time allows.