By SARAH MANSUR
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – As jury trials throughout the state have been put on pause during the pandemic, the Illinois Supreme Court is now allowing jury selection for civil trials to be held remotely via video conference.
The court’s order to allow remote jury selection comes after months of discussion and research by the Court Operations during COVID-19 Task Force.
The COVID-19 task force, which was formed by the court in late June, is charged with making recommendations for safely continuing court operations — including civil and criminal jury trials — amid the pandemic.
“Civil jury trials are necessary to the administration of justice in Illinois, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have an enormous impact on our entire court system, including the number of civil cases tried to verdict,” according to the court’s order, which was issued Monday and was based on the task force’s proposed recommendations.
“Remote jury selection by video conference in civil cases is permissible to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure so that litigants can access justice in a timely fashion while keeping all jurors, court personnel, litigants, and the public safe,” the order stated.
The 14-member task force was made up of a combination of attorneys, judges and legal professionals.
The order allowing remote jury selection for civil trials does not apply to criminal jury selection, nor does it “address any other part of the jury trial,” according to a news release from the Illinois Supreme Court.
Illinois Trial Lawyers Association President Larry Rogers Jr. said in a phone interview that the order is a step in the right direction.
“I applaud the court for taking steps to get us back to returning to the courtroom,” said Rogers, who is a partner at the plaintiff’s firm, Power Rogers LLP in Chicago.
Cook County Circuit Court, which includes Chicago and is the largest of the state’s 24 judicial circuits, has postponed civil jury trials since mid-March.
Rogers estimates his firm has postponed about 10 civil jury trials since then.
In Cook County, there is no date or timeframe set for the resumption of jury trials, according to a spokesperson for Cook County Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans.
The rules and timeframe for restarting civil jury trials vary across the 24 judicial circuits, as well as the individual county courts within those circuits.
In Mclean County — which is in the 11th Judicial Circuit and includes Bloomington and Normal — jury trials restarted in June but the court is prioritizing criminal cases involving a person in custody.
However, other court circuits — such as the 18th Judicial Circuit in suburban DuPage County bordering Cook County — have postponed all civil jury trials until Jan. 2021.
Rogers said one challenge with conducting remote jury selection is making sure the jury pool is inclusive.
“I think we need to figure out a way to ensure that we have a jury selection that includes people from all different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and not just those with access to WiFi and computers,” he said.
One way the court plans to address this issue is by asking potential jurors to respond to a survey with questions about access to technology, according to Chris Bonjean, spokesperson for the Illinois Supreme Court.
“Remote jury selection actually makes it easier for low-income potential jurors because it doesn’t require them to travel to the courthouse. Only a phone is needed,” Bonjean said in an email.
The guidelines for remote jury selection in civil trials, created by the court’s COVID-19 task force, acknowledges some courts may have to offer alternatives, or “points of access,” for potential jurors who lack access to smart devices and reliable wireless internet.
“For potential jurors who do not have access to a device that allows for videoconferencing or reliable internet service or who lack the technical aptitude to videoconference, courts may consider providing free and reliable internet, equipment, and technical support,” the guidelines state. “This can be done either at the courthouse, or in partnership with local entities like government agencies, public libraries, non-profit organizations, and community centers.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.