For almost three decades, I have watched jurors work in service to King County. The ultimate safeguard of justice is the right to a jury trial. With defendants in jail, waiting for a jury, the King County Superior Court has undertaken to answer the question, “How do you hold a jury trial in a pandemic?” The answer requires a dedicated citizenry, ready to serve.
While jury service can cause inconvenience and stress for those called to serve, I have watched jurors consistently agree to serve in the face of myriad reasons not to. As a judge, I have watched them endure inconvenience – and even some hardship – to listen intently to disputes and make difficult decisions. I am thankful for those who serve in King County Superior Court, and who consistently tell me that their experiences were interesting and worthwhile.
My gratitude exploded into civic pride and awe over the past several weeks. Twelve men and women from diverse backgrounds joined me, my staff, the litigants and two excellent lawyers to participate in a criminal trial amid the COVID-19 crisis. We converted our courtroom into a socially distant space. Everyone in the courtroom wore a face covering. We disinfected the courtroom every evening, provided access to hand sanitizer, used gloves, found bigger rooms for jury recesses, and improved our HVAC and filter systems.
We conducted jury selection primarily by Zoom. Prospective jurors responded to summons, answered written questionnaires, and engaged with the attorneys and myself from the comfort of their own private spaces. Anyone with a smart phone and a small private area could participate in this manner. The small group of prospective jurors who did not have access to such technology arrived at the courthouse and parked for free to participate in the jury selection process in person. Using these tools, we offered the opportunity to participate in the court process in as equitable and safe a manner as possible.
It was not perfect. My colleagues and I learn how to provide better service each time we enter the courtroom in this new era. There will be mistakes, and there will be successes.
I am penning this Op-Ed having just sent this incredible group of 12 jurors back to their large jury room to deliberate on a verdict. I do not know what they will decide, but I do know they will make that decision based on testimony they had the opportunity to hear, and based on evidence they had the opportunity to see. I know that the defendant and the alleged victims have received a fair hearing, and that my jurors will carefully deliberate on a verdict. I am so incredibly proud – proud of my staff who worked 10 times harder and longer than they would have for any other trial, proud of the lawyers who endured a profound change in how they engaged with jurors and witnesses, proud of the defendant who handled this procedure with grace, and proud of the dozens and dozens of people inside the KCCH who dedicated themselves to ensuring that this “first” got all of the support it needed.
Most of all, however, I am awed by the 12 people in that jury room right now. Here in the midst of a public-health crisis where gatherings of people increase your risk of contracting a dangerous illness, this group of people (along with approximately 140 others who responded but were not chosen) were willing to serve. They were willing to drive downtown, willing to walk to the courthouse, willing to don a mask for six hours a day, willing to endure our earnest yet clumsy ramp up of jury trials, and willing to listen to hours of testimony. They received very little compensation and few creature comforts.
I have many civic heroes whose stories I look to for inspiration during the difficult days in my job, heroes who have given their lives and safety in the pursuit of a more perfect union. These 12 people have joined them. I am humbled by their willingness to serve in the COVID-19 era, and they will be one of the highlights of my career. I have thanked them privately but wanted to make sure on behalf of our court we did so publicly as well. I am hopeful that their courage leads to a cavalcade of citizens ready and willing to serve in the cause of justice.