MONTPELIER — The Vermont Judiciary announced recently that eight of its courthouses are ready for jury trials. This comes after a year of work to construct appropriate barriers, test and improve air circulation and filtration, and develop process and facility enhancements to allow for social distancing.
The judiciary expects two other courthouses to be approved for 12-person jury trials in the coming weeks. Several are also ready for six-person jury trials, which could be used in some civil trials if all parties agree on the reduction of jury size.
Franklin County State’s Attorney James Hughes recently told The Messenger the superior court in St. Albans is among those that looks set for six-person trials.
Courts now available for jury trials are the county courthouses in Woodstock, Hyde Park, Chelsea and Burlington and the state courthouses in St. Johnsbury, Rutland, Barre and Brattleboro. The courts expect approval soon for jury trials at state court facilities in St. Albans, Bennington, Middlebury and Burlington. The county court building in Rutland is expected to be approved later this spring.
“I’m extremely proud of the collaboration through which our judges, court staff and facilities staff along with Buildings and General Services for State buildings and the Assistant Judges for county buildings have made this possible,” said Justice Harold Eaton, the supreme court justice who helped coordinate work at the facilities. “These colleagues knew how important it is to give Vermonters safe access to justice, even in a pandemic.
“Our staff has also worked tirelessly with our consultant, national infection and immunology expert Dr. Erin Bromage, to make the necessary changes to buildings, processes and procedure to keep juries and court staff safe while conducting jury trials, an important constitutional imperative,” he continued.
Judiciary officials are still unclear about when the first jury trials will get underway.
“We had several trials ready to go last month, with an available jury and a building that was approved for use. As is often the case when trials are imminent, those cases were settled,” Justice Eaton said. “That’s fine — the important thing is our ability to offer a trial with a jury of one’s peers to each party awaiting the opportunity to have their cases heard.”
The Judiciary also announced progress on conducting some civil jury trials remotely.
“With civil trials, we don’t have the same constraints as we do with criminal trials, even when a jury is involved,” explained Justice Karen Carroll, who oversees a group charged with examining what would need to happen to allow remote jury trials to commence.
“Still, there are details we need to work through,” she said. “Right now, the team is working on online jury questionnaires, procedures for jurors to view admitted exhibits during the trial and deliberations, completing documents like preliminary instructions for jurors, pretrial orders, and trial instructions for use by judges holding remote trials and finalizing how to train attorneys and jurors to conduct civil trials remotely.
“We are progressing well with these tasks and are excited by the prospect that we will soon begin to hold remote civil trials,” she noted.