A Right to a Speedy Jury Trial? Don't Count On It During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Courts ignore constitutional guarantees while defendants awaiting trial languish in jail.


Thomas Jefferson once described trial by jury as "the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution." In a year that has featured the country's founding document getting even shorter shrift than usual from elected officials, that offers us extra cause for concern. That's because—along with our freedom to operate businesses, gather with friends, travel, and worship as we please—jury trials in which justice is supposed to be delivered for plaintiffs, defendants, the accused, and crime victims alike have largely been curtailed since the beginning of the pandemic.

Headlines from across the country deliver the bad news of a court system on hiatus in disconnected pieces.

In September, after Massachusetts courts had theoretically returned to business for two months, WCVB noted that jury trials had yet to occur. "That's more than 1,800 jury trials that have not happened so far this year and court business is not expected to return to normal anytime soon."

All circuit court jury trials in South Carolina were suspended just this week after resuming in September. New Jersey did the same last month amidst a surge in COVID-19 cases.

"State and federal courts in the city have been able to complete only nine criminal jury trials since the pandemic hit in March," The New York Times reported last week of the situation in New York City. "Last year, there were about 800 criminal trials in the city."

Scattered across the country, the news stories offer glimpses of a judicial system that is barely even trying to live up to the Sixth Amendment guarantee of "the right to a speedy and public trial."

"More than 400 defendants have been waiting inside New York City jails for over two years for their cases to be resolved," the Times story adds.

The National Center for State Courts has tried to stay on top of responses to the pandemic below the federal level. "Restricting or ending jury trials" is listed first among five of the "most common efforts state courts are taking to combat the coronavirus" on the organization's website, which notes which courts are holding trials and which are not.

Kirsten Tynan, executive director of the Fully Informed Jury Association, delved into judicial systems across the country to discover the status of jury trials in state and federal district courts alike, as well as in many local courts. She posted her findings online in an Excel spreadsheet, which shows dozens of the country's federal district courts having suspended jury trials for periods of time ranging from through-the-end-of-the-year to indefinitely.

She also records 16 state judicial systems having suspended jury trials. Some of the state systems listed as permitting jury trials are partially shut down anyway, subject to local closures. That includes California, where Contra Costa County and Riverside County have halted trials in recent days.

In each of these jurisdictions, any business of the courts that relies on juries is on hold, and people awaiting the outcomes of jurors' deliberation are cooling their heels. That includes many defendants just like the 400 New York City prisoners who have languished while the wheels of justice grind even more slowly than usual—if at all.

"We have tacitly permitted our government to wield against us the very power that trial by jury was intended to prevent it from ever gaining: INDEFINITE DETENTION," Tynan pointed out as she gathered court data.

Given the constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial, how have the courts justified leaving prisoners behind bars and victims awaiting verdicts for months or longer? In many cases, they've just waved away such concerns.

"The continuances occasioned by this Order serve the ends of justice and outweigh the best interests of the public and defendants in a speedy trial," ruled the Supreme Court of Illinois in April.

"The continuances occasioned by this Order and [previous orders] serve the ends of justice and outweigh the best interests of the public and criminal defendants in a speedy trial," the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court announced in nearly identical language (apparently, magical legal thinking is at least as contagious as coronavirus). "Therefore, the time periods of such continuances shall be excluded from speedy trial computations."

Excluding continuances from computations for speedy trials is extremely important. While the vast majority of criminal defendants never see the inside of a courtroom—only about two percent of federal cases go to trial (a big problem in itself as defendants are strong-armed into plea bargains)—setting trial dates establishes timelines for resolving legal matters.

"Having a specific jury trial date scheduled makes a huge difference in moving cases along and getting parties talking, attorneys and court officials say," Jenni Bergal noted this week at the Pew Research Center's Stateline blog. "That often results in plea agreements and dismissals in criminal cases, and settlements in civil ones."

Without court dates, defendants can be stuck for months or years behind bars in conditions that are brutal at the best of times. During a pandemic, life locked in close quarters with other prisoners can be especially dangerous.

"At least 231 people have died from COVID-19 in Texas correctional facilities," University of Texas at Austin researchers reported last month. "This includes staff, jail, and prison deaths… 80% of people who died in jails from COVID were not convicted of a crime."

Of course, even if COVID-19 were to disappear tomorrow, keeping people incarcerated indefinitely without trial would still be unjust and a violation of constitutional guarantees.

In fits and spurts, some courts are trying to get the creaky apparatus of justice moving again. A few have experimented with jury trials via remote conferencing software. Others require social distancing for jurors participating in proceedings. Whatever the outcome, though, it can't undo the life and liberty lost to a system that was unprepared to live up to guarantees of due process.

NEXT: Nevada Supreme Court Becomes the Latest To Reject Republican Election Fraud Lawsuit

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  1. COVID death toll in the United States: 286K people and 1 constitution.

    1. Did the constitution die OF covid or WITH covid, though?

      1. Like most of those who reportedly died of COVID, it was already on its death bed. So who actually knows?

        1. It’s more like tinkerbell and neverland it’s only real if you believe in it otherwise it’s just a piece of parchment that a bunch of racist olds wrote to preserve their wealth.

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      2. it died of a broken heart because noone actually believed in it anymore.

        1. Peter Noone doesn’t believe in the Constitution? How about the rest of the Hermits?

    2. 650,000 Americans die of heart disease every year.

      1.7M Americans die from all causes of death.

      1. That “whoosh” sound was my point going over your head.

  2. Poor unreason. Worried about defendant constitutional rights but not worried about the constitutional rights of states.

    1. non-excessive bail is an 8th Amendment guarantee. Most person awaiting trial should be out on non-excessive bail.

      Get back to me when unreason advocates that instead of sucking Democrat tyrant dick.

      1. Oh yeah. They typical “You haven’t covered what I want you to cover so that makes you bad” argument. Dude, try a little Reason search on bail. They’ve run many articles about how the practice is unjustly abused. Many. Try being honest for a change.

        1. And the answer is always that because it can be abused it should be done away with entirely, consequences be damned.

          It doesn’t help that they approach the problem as an intersectional issue in their arguments rather than primarily an infringement on rights regardless of the identification of the community impacted.

          Add to that the outright pro-criminal arguments of writers like Zuri and there is little reason to believe they’re being honest in their reporting.

  3. why would we expect the gov to do their job during a pandemic they are after all the definition of nonessential.

  4. Are you essential or not. The courts have declared their function to be non-essential. And it is unconscionable that individual liberties are trashed by the non-essential.

  5. And don’t count on being able to post bail if you live in LA. And Reason thinks that’s a good thing (the end of cash bail). Even California voters weren’t stupid enough to sign up for that.

  6. voir dire by zoom is a bitch.

  7. You can still get a speedy trial even during the pandemic, all you have to do is plead guilty. And it’s not like that’s infringing the rights of innocent people, we all know you’re guilty because why else would you have been arrested and charged? These people who have been languishing behind bars awaiting trial have no one else to blame but themselves since they insist on making the preposterous claim that they’re not guilty.

    1. The only people who get a speedy trial and are considered innocent until proven guilty are cops. Everyone else? Guilty. A shyster might get them off, but they are still guilty.

  8. It would have been helpful if Tuccille compared/contrasted court closures due to covid in Democrat States and Counties versus Republican States and Counties.

    Here in PA, the Democrat controlled Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas (where 42 of 43 Judges are Democrats even though Republicans comprise 40% of the county’s population, and where partisan PA State Supreme Court Democrats David Wecht and Max Baer came from) has cancelled all in-person trials and hearings since March, and has no plans to resume them (until covid is controlled).

    And yet, all the surrounding counties of Butler, Westmoreland, Beaver, Washington and Fayette (which are controlled by Republicans) have been conducting in person trials and hearings for the past five months (even though those counties have similar or slightly higher rates of covid than Allegheny).

    I suspect a similar pattern has been occurring nationwide (i.e. Democrats have delayed and/or altered judicial procedures more than Republicans).

    1. Unfortunately this is an issue regardless of party. The DA who is an R in Lumpkin County GA isn’t holding jury trials, and won’t dismiss ANY criminal charges even if events have since proven them irrelevant.

  9. Most defendants plea bargain. And I know for a fact they are still sending out jury duty notices.

    Anyway I’m sure the pissy liberaltarians will continue to harp on minor delays while ignoring all the big constitutional violations of the far left neo Marxist Biteme admin and congress.

    1. And the one’s who don’t plea bargain have a constitutional right to a speedy trial.

    2. So Reason and libertarians are bad for pointing out that a lack of jury trials has resulted in people languishing in jail. That’s bad because they aren’t covering the real problem as you see it. How dare anyone give them credit for pointing this out. Nope. They’re commies because they don’t cover what you want them to cover. Yup. Lockstep with you or commie. Those are the only options.

    3. Biteme admin

      Please stop this. It’s painfully unfunny.

  10. With the elimination of cash bail in California, this is excellent news. Now if you were deemed as ‘too risky to release’, leaving defendants with the binary situation of ‘release with out bail’ and ‘no release at all’– the slower court times will let everyone know what the costs of no-cash bail are, good and hard.

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  12. Pandemic effecting right to speedy trials? Bad.
    Pandemic effecting voting rule changes without proper legislation? A-ok.

  13. When and where are courts ever held responsible? I haven’t had to deal with them much, thank Heaven, but more than once I have had a circuit court take more than x days to do what the law said it had x days to do, with no apology or explanation ever given to me. If the circumstances were to be reversed….

    1. “If the circumstances were to be reversed….”

      …you wouldn’t have qualified immunity on your side. Standard operating procedure.

  14. Judges are lazy and cowardly. They weasel out of doing their constitutional jobs when it comes to a speedy trial. They weasel out of doing their constitutional jobs when there is election fraud.

  15. The guy who kited some checks – let them out until trial.
    The guy who murdered his parents with an axe – not so much.

  16. If you can’t get a speedy trial, you should be released on recognizance.

  17. Federal jury trials rarely occur anyway and when they do, defendants lose more than 95% of the time. The right to trial by jury is pretty meaningless when the judges exercise such mind an d information control over the jurors that defendants have no chance for a fair and impartial jury. And that is how trials in federal court have been conducted for decades.

  18. If there are less cases happening in the courtroom, whether remotely or in person, what are Judges doing with all this spare time? As near as I can tell, its not working. I know someone who has had an open appeal in Florida for 15 months that has yet to be ruled on. One would think judges would have more time to work on the “paper only” rulings (no in person required at all) but that does not appear to be the case (pun intended).

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