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Jury trials set to get back underway on Monday

DES MOINES — The state judicial system is preparing to restart jury trials Monday. Trials were first paused at the height of the pandemic in March — then restarted in September — and paused the second time in November as COVID-19 cases were on the increase.

Iowa Supreme Court Justice Matthew McDermott was co-chair of the committee that set the guidelines for restarting the first time. “To our knowledge during that period there were not any incidences of COVID spread that came from jury trials,” McDermott says. “We’re optimistic that we can move forward again next week and the months ahead.”

Lawyer Guy Cook is the other co-chair of the committee and says they worked hard to find ways to get things rolling again. (as he says)”Particularly with respect to picking a jury — that’s when you have the greatest number of people collected,” Cook says. “And so, in some courts, the jury selection has been done away from the courthouse in a bigger room where there is greater separation.”

He says they looked at having both masks and face shields and determined during trials that masks were the best way to go. Cook says they had two requirements for getting juries picked. “That they be fair and that they be safe. And they’re really connected — because we to ensure that we have the greatest number of people from which to select the jury,” according to Cook. “And the jury panel is not skewed in some negative way. And ensuring that the selection process is as safe as possible is a component of making the process fair.”

The Judicial System has created a public service announcement to explain to jurors what will happen when they are called and chosen to serve. Justice McDermott says there are always exceptions for jurors with issues.  He says it is the same during COVID or any other time if someone has a basis for why the cannot serve, the court will consider that and decide if it is valid.

Cook says you can be confident in the process. “Folks can rest assured that considerable work has been put in to ensure the process is safe,” he says.

Trials without the need of juries have continued, as have many other court services.¬†Justice McDermott says the pause did back up jury trials — but he is confident they can get back on track again. “Obviously just having a trial date set on the calendar and knowing that it is going to move forward will push parties to think really hard about whether they are actually going to take the case to the trial or whether they are going to resolve it through other means,” according to McDermott. “And what we found in the fall is just having these trials moving forward got some of these cases resolved, moving, and we are hopeful that’ll happen again.”

Cook agrees with that and says it is important to the overall system. “The trials need to go on. It’s not hyperbole to talk about how jury trials really are the cornerstone of our judicial system, of our democracy. They are so important that they are guaranteed by the Constitution,” Cook says.

Justice McDermott says are confident heading into the restart. “We’re optimistic, but obviously, we are going to monitor things closely as we have throughout this whole process,” McDermott says. “And if in the future it looks like we have to change course again we will think through those and decide whether that has to happen.”

The district courts in each of Iowa’s 99 counties will institute the measures they need to get their jury trials back underway.

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