Lack of Jurors Paralyzing Criminal, Civil Trials

COVID-19 restrictions, fears blamed for lack of candidates.

I recently received a jury duty summons. With everything that is going, do I still need to serve on a jury? Should I ignore it?

— James P., Daly City 

It is true that many courtrooms have begun hearing jury trials. But many courts are prioritizing criminal cases. The Los Angeles courts have been focusing on the 7,000 criminal cases that are currently backlogged, according to Presiding Judge Eric Taylor.

This is pushing aside civil cases, leaving many victims anxiously waiting for their personal injury trial. The delayed cases include people badly injured in car accidents, medical malpractice, workplace accidents, sexual assault and workplace harassment.  

The delays primarily are attributable to the pandemic shutdown of 2020. Because of the apparent second surge of COVID-19 cases, various California counties are reinstating previous pandemic restrictions and quarantines. This trend may soon cascade to every county across the state and that could mean additional trial extensions that will continue to backlog all cases. This legal landscape is justifiably frightening to those awaiting verdicts.

There is another reason for delays that is plaguing every court across the state, so much so that even criminal trials are being delayed. Jury trials, whether criminal or civil, are paralyzed without a key component: Jurors.

Within the past few months, courts from Sacramento to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego have had to delay trials because too few people responded to jury duty summonses. Across the state, the nonresponse rates are much higher now than they were before the pandemic.

San Francisco’s Superior Court that gives potential jurors the option to report online or in person is experiencing an online trend. In one case in July, out of 135 jurors instructed to report, 127 reported remotely and eight reported in person. Of the eight who showed up to court, half were dismissed, leaving just four in-person prospective jurors for the trial.

A television station in San Diego recently reported that a criminal case had to be postponed last month because too few people showed up for jury duty. Officials twice summoned 900 people, but only about 40 people showed up each time, KGTV reported.

“What the real question boils down to: Are people willing to show up to that court and sit in a jury trial?” said Bill Raftery, a senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts. “Many courts have been responsive to jurors who have said that they’re not comfortable with coming to court and doing jury duty and therefore offering deferrals simply because of concerns over COVID.” 

These shortages of jurors have created delays in criminal trials that infringe on the constitutional rights of many. The law says individuals facing criminal charges are presumed innocent. For some defendants who have not been convicted and are awaiting their day in court, can’t make bail or are being held without bail, it is more time behind bars as a pretrial detainee.

What can you do if you receive a jury summons? Do not ignore it. You are needed. “Justice has not shut down. Justice has slowed down,” said Deborah Chang, president of the Consumer Attorneys of California.

There currently is a big impact on civil proceedings. Victims of personal injury often are disabled and maybe out of work because of some tragic incident and cannot wait months or years for a trial date or settlement.

 “It is devastating on the clients and the family who are desperate,” according to Chang. The side effects of these delays are devastating to victims who are in the weakest health. They may be clinging to life due to an injury in an accident, or perhaps a workplace exposure to a harmful substance. “It is so devastating to lose a plaintiff before they reach the trial date because they die. Sometimes the claim dies with them.”

The system cannot function without you. Jury trials provide an opportunity for citizens to participate in the process of governing. Serving on a jury is the most direct and impactful way for citizens to connect to the Constitution. Citizens can help perpetuate our system of laws and stabilize our democracy.

Jurors perform a vital role in the American system of justice. The protection of our rights and liberties is largely achieved through the teamwork of judge and jury who, working together in a common effort, put into practice the principles of our legal system. In both civil and criminal cases, it is the jury’s duty to decide the facts in accordance with the principles of law and guided by the assigned judge. The decision is made on the evidence introduced, and the jury’s decision on the facts is usually final. 

Juries provide the perspective of the citizen to our developing body of law. Exercise your constitutional right to participate in a process that is a cornerstone of American democracy: the jury trial.

The COVID-19 outbreak is an ongoing, rapidly developing situation and the local, state, and federal responses are changing regularly. The Dolan Law Firm takes efforts to keep the information on this page updated, however, to guarantee up-to-date information it is necessary to confirm with publicly available federal, state and local health organization guidance and government mandates.

Christopher B. Dolan is the owner of Dolan Law Firm, PC. Lourdes De Armas is a Managing Senior Trial Attorney in our Los Angeles Office. We serve clients throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and California from our offices in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Email questions and topics for future articles to: Each situation is different, and this column does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with an experienced trial attorney to fully understand your rights.

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