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Jury selection is online for now. How the pandemic is reshaping some Oregon courtrooms

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Jury selection called for a 9 a.m. start time for Portland resident Meredith Cope. Lucky for Cope, she was able to wake up and walk over to her home laptop to participate.

Cope wasn’t sure what to expect. In her prior juror summons a few years ago, Cope spent two full days at the Multnomah County courthouse in downtown Portland – only to be dismissed.

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This time around, it was just a three-hour video call Nov. 1 for jury selection.

“It was significantly a faster process which I really loved because sitting in that room for 10 to 16 hours over two days was … well, you know,” she laughed.

Cope isn’t alone in her experience.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, jury selection, traffic court, procedural hearings and in some cases even trials are moving forward without everyone required to be physically present in courtrooms thanks to computer screens and internet connections. But remote proceedings have also raised questions about how accessible Oregon courts are for individuals who may not have access to internet or mobile devices, or who may be technologically challenged.

Court officials are monitoring the efficiency of online operations and taking note of what elements might be able to stick around post-pandemic – making clear that wholesale shifts to electronic courtrooms are unlikely, especially in significant criminal cases.

On Oct. 4, Multnomah County Circuit Court temporarily became the only in Oregon to move completely to virtual jury selection, spokesperson Rachel McCarthy said.

“We’re still analyzing, figuring out the pros and cons,” McCarthy said. “What works, what doesn’t work, and trying to balance the benefits of doing things online.”

McCarthy said the courts are unsure what virtual changes will remain and will await further guidance from state judicial officials.

“We don’t know if we’re going to do it forever,” McCarthy said of the virtual additions. But for now, “this is just going to become the new normal.”

COVID restrictions began in March 2020, when Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court Martha Walters issued multiple executive orders for court facilities following Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 protocols. Among the latest is a vaccine mandate, with more than 92% of court workers now vaccinated.

Some restrictions are now being lifted. Walters on Monday ended the social distancing requirements in courtrooms statewide, effective Nov. 29. Presiding judges in any judicial district can continue to require social distancing through Jan. 2.

Noting the high volume of judicial cases in Multnomah County, Presiding Judge Stephen Bushong released an order Tuesday aligning with the latter deadline.

Bushong said jury selection for criminal cases and some civil cases will return to in-person Jan. 3. Civil jury trials lasting five days or more will continue with remote jury selection.

The pandemic has created significant challenges for traditional court operations, and modifications are now something of a constant. What began with courthouse closures and the postponement of in-person trials morphed to embrace technology and adapt in the building. Video calls, social distancing, plexiglass dividers — all things that courts might have never seen before – are the new norm.

McCarthy said when the need for social distancing first became a threat to in-person jury trials and hearings, a virtual option was added. But the virtual options didn’t combat every obstacle to deliver a verdict.

There are still “fundamental aspects of a hearing that have to take place in person,” McCarthy said.

While low-level citations such as parking and speeding tickets could easily be resolved online, other matters generally have remained in the courtroom.

The Multnomah chief family law judge argues there are equity issues with family law proceedings going virtual, with the potential for inadequate family participation, McCarthy said.

The court conducted just two civil trials fully remotely, with its first in March.

Criminal cases vary. The court has allowed criminal trials to be conducted online if decided only by a judge during a hearing, while jury trials must be in-person, she said. Decisions about whether to offer online plea hearings have been handled on a case-by-case basis.

“The goal for us throughout all of this has just been to keep things moving,” McCarthy said.

For defense attorney John Gutbezahl, the virtual elements were the best idea to come out of the pandemic for arraignments and short-term court appearances. He said his job requires a significant amount of driving to get to various courtrooms, and now he can get more work done by appearing virtually.

However, Gutbezahl draws the line at doing a trial completely virtual.

Permanently losing the in-person elements of jury selection and trials would put his clients at a disadvantage, he said.

“Cross examination has been called the single greatest engine for determining truth,” Gutbezahl said. “I think you lose a tremendous amount of the jury being able to analyze that witness and determine credibility if they’re up on a TV screen.”

There are a few drawbacks to the virtual proceedings, said Stephen Mayer, a spokesperson for the Washington County District Attorney’s Office.

“The public can view some proceedings virtually from the court’s webpage, but it can be problematic because witnesses can log in anonymously and listen to the testimony of other witnesses,” Mayer said in an email. “Phone appearances, which are permitted, can be problematic because we don’t actually know who is on the other end.”

He added that virtual appearances are problematic because the court does not know where the person is, and some pre-trial agreements require defendants facing jail time to remain in Oregon.

Despite the changes in the courtroom, the right to a speedy trial did not go away, said Todd Sprague, a spokesperson for the Oregon Judicial Department.

He said remote technology had positive implications but there are some drawbacks.

“There’s certainly challenges around understanding and using the technology,” Sprague said.

Count Cliff Schooling among those adapting to the technology.

Schooling was present Monday morning for a traffic court video call. A Multnomah County judge adjudicated a slew of cases, each in a matter of minutes.

Schooling, a 64-year-old veteran from Vancouver, said the technology made traffic court complicated.

He was sent a letter in the mail about his speeding violation and received instructions on how to log in. It took a while for Schooling to get his laptop set up with the program, Cisco WebEx, the program Oregon courts use.

“Personally, I would rather (go to) the courtroom,” he said. “I know it’s not like an everyday event.”

— Alexandra Skores

askores@oregonian.com; 503-221-8073; @AlexandraSkores





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