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Nationwide Status of Trial by Jury

Report on the Status of Trial by Jury in U.S. Courts During the COVID-19 Pandemic

11 December 2020 Update

Contents

 

Key Points

  • As of 16 December 2020
    • criminal trials by jury in U.S. District Courts (federal)
      • are SUSPENDED INDEFINITELY in 9 U.S. District Courts, and
      • are SUSPENDED for AT LEAST the rest of 2020 in an additional 52 U.S. District Courts
    • criminal trials by jury in state court systems SUSPENDED STATEWIDE 
      • are SUSPENDED INDEFINITELY STATEWIDE in 5 entire states, and
      • are SUSPENDED STATEWIDE for AT LEAST the rest of 2020 in an additional 12 entire states
  • Some courts are on track to go for more than a year without ANY trials by jury.
  • Numerous local courts in states without a blanket suspension of criminal trials by jury have independently suspended trials by jury locally.
  • Even where trial by jury is not suspended, they are proceeding so slowly that many courts are not counting weeks or months of time against the speedy trial clock.

 

Discussion

Our right to trial by jury is in the midst of an extreme Constitutional crisis.

Trials by jury have been widely suspended in federal and state courts nationwide. Yet plea bargains, bench trials, and new indictments by grand juries continue on largely unimpeded.

To make matters worse, pretrial detention of those accused but not convicted continues. People who are legally innocent locked up in facilities that even before the pandemic were overcrowded and unsanitary with medical care scarce and of substandard quality. In the midst of a pandemic, such conditions are even more dangerous—increasing the odds of a de facto death penalty for someone who hasn't even been convicted.

We are now on the brink of widespread, national collapse of the role of the jury in protecting individual rights and the people—our families, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and our own selves—who are meant to be protected along with them.
 

Speedy Trials
Speedy trial deadlines are being repeatedly extended, almost entirely without restraint.

Although a complete inventory of all the courts in the United States is beyond FIJA's capabilities, we are compiling certain key information on courts as we come across it. For instance, FIJA has found several courts that are on track to go on the order of a year or even more without a single criminal trial by jury. Among them are:

Others have technically had some trials by jury, but so few that backlogs are piling up and numerous people are not getting their Constitutionally-guaranteed trial by jury in any reasonable timeframe. For example:

  • in New York City, only 9 trials reportedly took place over 9 months from March-November 2020, compared with about 800 trials in the same timeframe in 2019
    • he mayor's office reports more than 400 presumptively innocent people—people who have not been convicted and are STILL awaiting trial—each incarcerated for more than two years.
  • in Massachusetts, more than 1800 trials by jury that normally would have happened in various courts across the state in a typical March-September timeframe did not take place in 2020
  • Harris County, Texas reportedly had a backlog nearing 50,000 cases awaiting trial as of November
    • , has incarcerated some presumptively innocent people for more than two years because of delays related to COVID added to delays due to Hurricane Harvey.

Even in courts and court systems where jury trials are taking place, they are taking place at such a slow pace that the court will still often specify a period of weeks or months that do not count against the speedy trial "clock", i.e. the supposedly limited amount of time the government has to bring a person to trial or to take some other specific action in the process leading up to trial.

 

 

 

Indefinite Detention
Accused people are now being indefinitely detained in some jurisdictions without any idea when they will have access to their Constitutionally-guaranteed trial by jury.

A thorough inventory of all U.S. District Courts and state judicial branches revealed that currently there are blanket orders in 9 U.S. District Courts and 5 state court systems suspending trial by jury until further notice.

A thorough review of all individual courts in the United States is not possible for FIJA to conduct with our limited resources. However, as we come across news items, we also note individual instances of local courts suspending trial by jury. Currently we are aware of an additional 6 local courts in 5 different states that have indefinitely suspended trials by jury.

To our knowledge, in none of these courts or court systems have all people accused but not yet been convicted of criminal offenses been released from incarceration. Thus, indefinite suspension of trial by jury is essentially a proxy for indefinite detention—the very power that trials by jury were intended to prevent the government from ever wielding.

Excessive De Facto "Sentences"
Government is now effectively detaining some people for longer than the entire sentence they would receive if convicted.

Some courts and/or states technically have dates specified for when their suspension of trial by jury will end. However, many courts have been figuratively kicking the can down the road over and over. In one order, they specify that trial by jury is suspended until a certain date, but as that date approaches, they simply issue another suspension order with an even later date.

What happens when this process is repeated several times? Consider what has happened in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. After his initial order in March suspending criminal trials by jury, Chief Judge Glenn Suddaby has subsequently extended that suspension 6 times (in April, May, June, August, October, and now again in December). The Post-Standard, serving upstate New York, reports that this latest extension will make it more than A FULL YEAR with no trials by jury permitted in this court. 

This tactic may give the falsely comforting impression of a light at the end of the tunnel, but it obscures the reality that while a few courts/and or states have been forthright about the situation, even more have a hidden, unstated policy of indefinite suspension of an essential, Constitutional right. And along with this policy that is in practice (even if not overtly framed by these courts as such) indefinite suspension of the right to trial by jury, they are concurrently imposing policy of indefinite detention of some of their pretrial detainees.

Coerced Forfeiture of the Right to Trial by Jury
Accused people are forced to decide between risking their lives in COVID-laden lockups or forfeiting their right to trial by jury in exchange for a bench trial or plea bargain.

Lack of Data Leaves the People in the Dark
All of this is compounded by the government's usual carelessness with data. Much of the information presented below and in our spreadsheet was acquired only by painstakingly sifting through literally hundreds of non-standard government websites. 

Data

U.S. District Courts

9 U.S. DISTRICT COURTS have INDEFINITELY SUSPENDED criminal trials by jury:

  • District of Arizona
  • Central District of California
  • Eastern District of California
  • Southern District of Illinois
  • District of Massachusetts
  • District of Nevada
  • Eastern District of New York
  • District of South Carolina
  • Southern District of West Virginia

An additional 52 U.S. DISTRICT COURTS have CURRENTLY SUSPENDED criminal trials by jury and will not resume until next year, with at least ostensible* end dates in:

  • April 2021
    • Southern District of Florida
  • March 2021
    • Eastern District of Louisiana
    • Western District of Missouri 
    • Northern District of New York
    • Western District of Virginia
  • February 2021
    • Western District of Arkansas
    • District of Connecticut
    • Western District of Kentucky
    • District of Maine (Portland division)
    • District of Minnesota
    • District of Nebraska
    • District of North Dakota
    • Western District of Pennsylvania
    • District of Utah
    • Western District of Wisconsin
  • January 2021
    • District of Alaska
    • Eastern District of Arkansas
    • Southern District of California
    • District of Colorado
    • District of Columbia
    • Middle District of Georgia
    • Northern District of Georgia
    • District of Guam
    • District of Idaho
    • Central District of Illinois
    • Northern District of Indiana
    • Southern District of Indiana
    • Eastern District of Kentucky
    • District of Maine (Bangor division)
    • District of Maryland
    • District of New Mexico
    • Middle District of North Carolina
    • District of New Jersey
    • Southern District of New York
    • Southern District of Ohio
    • Northern District of Oklahoma
    • Eastern District of Pennsylvania
    • Middle District of Pennsylvania
    • District of Rhode Island
    • District of South Dakota
    • Western District of Tennessee
    • Northern District of Texas
    • Southern District of Texas (Corpus Christi division)
    • Southern District of Texas (Houston/Galveston division)
    • Southern District of Texas (McAllen division)
    • Western District of Texas
    • Eastern District of Virginia
    • Eastern District of Washington

 

Statewide Court Systems

4 STATES have INDEFINITELY SUSPENDED criminal trials by jury STATEWIDE:

  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • South Carolina
  • Wyoming

An additional 11 STATES have CURRENTLY SUSPENDED criminal trials by jury STATEWIDE (with ostensible* end dates specified)of which 10 WILL NOT RESUME UNTIL 2021 with the eleventh resuming on the last day of 2020 at the earliest:

  • Alaska (3/15/2021)
  • Maryland (2/16/2021)
  • Kentucky (2/2/2021)
  • Iowa (2/1/2021)
  • Minnesota (2/1/2021)
  • Tennessee (2/1/2021)
  • Arkansas (1/15/2021)
  • Delaware (1/4/2021)
  • Idaho (1/4/2021)
  • New Mexico (1/1/2021)
  • Connecticut (12/31/2020)

 

Source Material

For details on the sources of this data (and additional data not discussed in this report), please see our publicly available, online Google spreadsheet containing links to the sources for this information. 

As part of FIJA's educational mission, this dataset is made freely available for public use. We hope not only that this data and the reports we issue based on it help illuminate for the general public the ongoing and increasingly dire situation for our right to trial by jury, but that media, researchers, policymakers, and others will also find this data useful in their work in upholding our Constitutionally-guaranteed right to trial by jury in full.

If you are using the data and wish to credit FIJA for the source material, which is much appreciated, a link to this spreadsheet and/or our website would be appropriate. Please also let us know how you are using it by emailing us at aji@fija.org.

The data in this spreadsheet is being updated periodically. The date a particular piece of information was last checked is recorded each time it is updated. If you do not find a particular piece of data or a source for a particular piece of data you saw previously, it may be have been superseded by a more recent data point/source. Historic data is being kept by FIJA, so if this is the case, please contact us at aji@fija.org to let us know what you are looking for. Knowing the date you saw the information is very helpful.

In most cases, the data in this sheet was manually collected from individual orders on the websites of the district courts or state judicial branches in question. When no order was found discussing a particular piece of data, other sources were consulted for direct information, or absent a clear statement, indirect clues. Sometimes we have taken information from elsewhere on a court's or state judicial branch website, such as prominently displayed alerts, a dedicated COVID information page, a page of information for jurors, etc.

In cases where there was no court or statewide suspension of trial by jury, there is usually no order mentioning that. In such cases, we might have determined from seeing jury trials scheduled on a district court calendar or a court calendar from a website of a court in a particular state that there was no blanket suspension. Where no information was found on a district court, state judicial branch, or lower court website, we might link to a particular articles in the news that mentioned the information.