April 01, 2021

Justice System Must Take Steps to Ensure Jurors' Health Once Trials Resume

William J. Hunter

As I prepared to write this piece, my 14-year-old son was required to undergo knee surgery at Augusta's Children’s Hospital. The complicated (and lengthy) pre-op process was a reminder of the multi-faceted challenges we face related to COVID-19, especially when considering reinitiating jury trials across our State.

Let me explain.

The specimen from my son’s mandatory COVID-19 test was mistakenly sent to the “slow” lab instead of the one used for pre-surgical patients. After a delay, which included a new test and several hours waiting for the results, the surgery was successfully performed.

No matter one’s age and health, the personal, professional and societal implications of contracting COVID-19 can be daunting. It is also affecting a matter of much greater significance — the efficient administration of justice.

Each person asked to serve on a jury in the coming months will undoubtedly ask two basic questions: What are the risks? And, is it worth the risk to report to jury duty?

How do we convince prospective jurors — all of whom will have the same thoughts that I did in that waiting room — that we can keep them safe and that their service is “worth the risk”?

This quandary has been evident in every decision made thus far by Chief Justice Harold D. Melton and the Supreme Court of Georgia,which recently issued a new judicial emergency order prohibiting any trials until at least Feb. 7.

Chief Justice Melton has made it clear that while business will eventually proceed, it will not be “business as usual.”

The business of the courts shall only be conducted in a safe manner following Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. Every court in the state has submitted a provisional plan outlining how that court will re-engage in seating jurors for trials while making sure that every juror feels safe.

When we tell prospective jurors that they are safe and that their service is worth it, we have to be right. And getting it “right” could not be more important.

Jury trials in civil cases have been mandated since 1791 through the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In fact, Americans who were seeking independence from British rule served on colonial juries as a way to govern themselves.

Thus, it is no small thing when our courts cease operation of the most fundamental guaranteed right of procedure in our justice system. This is especially true now. 

It is imperative that those who feel aggrieved, and those who have been accused, have their Constitutional rights to a timely jury trial through a fair process.

These are big questions with no clear answers and known and unknown obstacles in our path.

Anyone who receives a jury summons in the coming months can believe that the judges and lawyers in this State are cognizant of their thoughts and fears and are taking every conceivable action to address them. We can have faith that Chief Justice Melton and the other justices are thoughtfully negotiating what is one of the most intricate balancing acts our justice system has faced.

There are going to be more bumps in the road which require our patience and cooperation. However, jury trials must soon again become a reality throughout our country. Our entire system of justice depends on it.

This is an op-ed by lawyer William J. Hunter, a partner at the Savannah law firm of Oliver Maner LLP. He is a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates, an organization devoted to protecting the Seventh Amendment right to civil trial by jury for Americans.

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