Minnesota's judicial council, which oversees the state's court operations, voted Thursday to continue to suspend criminal jury trials until March 15 in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has limited many in-person court proceedings.
However, the council increased the exceptions that would allow for criminal jury trials and also opened the door to conducting some civil jury trials using video technology if all parties and the presiding judge are in agreement.
The judicial council is composed of chief judges and other court personnel from around the state and is chaired by Lorie Gildea, the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The council met remotely through livestream video.
In November, the council postponed most criminal jury trials until Feb. 1 in the face of a surge in COVID-19 cases, with an understanding that the plan would be revisited in mid-January.
That surge has since dissipated some, but there are mixed indicators about what direction the pandemic is now taking, the council was told in a report by Rick Larkin, interim emergency management analyst for the Minnesota judicial branch.
While most criminal jury trials will stay on hold, the council voted that exceptions will be made where there is a demand by attorneys for a speedy trial, the defendants are in custody and face felony charges or are accused of a nonfelony crime against a person.
The exceptions adopted Thursday are more explicit than the order governing court operations that Gildea issued on Nov. 20.
The chief judge in a judicial district will need to conclude that conditions locally are safe to conduct the trial. These decisions will be reported to Gildea, who will be monitoring efforts statewide.
Since November, state courts have granted 15 exceptions allowing criminal cases to go to a jury trial. Nine were settled beforehand and six trials have been held. A total of 704 prospective jurors were brought into courthouses, but a court staffer at Thursday's meeting was unable to answer the question of how many jurors were called in but did not show up.
Under the plan adopted Thursday, most court hearings that precede trials will continue to be conducted remotely, which is not a change from procedures adopted in November.
Also left unchanged was a directive that grand juries already empaneled will continue to take evidence, but no new grand juries will be empaneled.
Until now civil trials have been barred as the state court system tried to limit exposure to the coronavirus.
Toddrick Barnette, chief judge of the Fourth Judicial District, which covers Hennepin County, said the district would be interested in resuming civil trials remotely.
There was discussion of conducting a remote civil trial as a pilot project with details to be worked out by a standing committee of the judicial council known as the "Other Side Work Group." It was not clear whether civil trial jurors would view the trial proceedings on computers from their home, which Minnesota federal courts plan to try.
Leonardo Castro, the chief judge for Ramsey County, drew some chuckles when he suggested that in conducting civil trials by video, jurors at home should be given "specific instructions, so there are no dogs or cats or naked husbands walking through the scene."
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224