January 25, 2021

Volume XI, Number 25

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“Jury Trials are Innately Human Experiences.”

Judge Rodney Gilstrap of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas as capitulated, postponing his upcoming trials until March. His order includes some interesting commentary in the footnotes.

Of remote proceedings, Judge Gilstrap writes:

This approach, while adequate in a strict sense, allowed the Court to move forward virtually, albeit with regularly unwelcomed losses of audio, video, or both, including unfixable lagtime between audio and video where lips would move. . . lips would stop . . . and sound would follow. The virtual proceedings detracted from the typical administration of justice, depriving the Court of the ability to observe such critical factors as intonation, body-language, attitude, demeanor, and similar vocal and other physical nuance and those quasi-intangibles that normally breathe life and meaning into the written briefing filed on the docket. This approach also unavoidably hampered the Court’s ability to interject questions and have an easy dialogue with counsel. In some instances, virtual proceedings before this Court were infected by the necessarily casual features of home life, such as intrusions of advocates’ spouses, children, and family pets. While such happenings may be an increasing norm of remote work in many contexts, they stand in stark contrast to the formality and solemnity in which Court proceedings traditionally are and must be conducted. Such problems are only magnified in complex proceedings with many moving parts.

On the safety precautions he had put in place for his pandemic trials, Judge Gilstrap writes:

These safety protocols included but were not limited to: taking temperatures of all entrants to court facilities; requiring masks and in some cases gloves; installing industrial air filtration devices in courtrooms; spacing in-person lawyers, parties, witnesses and jurors; installing plexiglass barriers around witness stands, jury boxes and elsewhere; limiting the number of participants physically present in court; periodic and repeated deep cleaning of jury rooms, restrooms and other common facilities; written questionnaires to venire members regarding their personal circumstances related to the virus sent and answered prior to their appearance; sequestering of jurors and providing individualized meals during trials to avoid exposure within communities during lunch breaks; and myriad other measures.

For Judge Gilstrap, remote trials are not a viable solution. He writes: “While some motion practice may be adequately addressed via virtual proceedings, the Court believes that the fair adjudication of the rights of the parties, as envisioned by the Framers and embodied in the Sixth and Seventh Amendments.” Then comes this footnote:

Jury trials are innately human experiences. More is often communicated in a courtroom non-verbally than verbally. Such a human experience must allow for the look and feel of direct human interaction. Such factors as cadence, tone, inflection, delivery, and facial expression are as vital to due process as is the applicable statute or case law. When Daniel Webster argued the Dartmouth College case, John Marshall cried from the bench. Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 (1819). Our history is replete with such examples of the humanity engrained in the American jury trial. This Court is persuaded that the remote, sterile, and disjointed reality of virtual proceedings cannot at present replicate the totality of human experience embodied in and required by our Sixth and Seventh Amendments.

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© 2020 McDermott Will & EmeryNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 328
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