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West Virginia Supreme Court gives green light to jury trials

CHARLESTON — Jury trials may resume in West Virginia, the West Virginia Supreme Court said on Monday.

The court on Friday issued its guidelines for judges and circuit clerks to use to protect the health and safety of employees, litigants, witnesses, jurors, attorneys and the public.

“The Constitution of West Virginia provides that ‘the courts of this state shall be open’ and that justice shall be administered ‘without delay.’ Defendants’ rights relating to a trial by their peers must be respected even during a sustained health emergency,” Chief Justice Tim Armstead said. “However, participation in such a trial, whether as a party, attorney, witness or juror, should not endanger anyone’s health.”

All trial participants will be required to wear masks or face-coverings in courtrooms and related facilities. Social distancing will be strictly enforced, the Supreme Court said.

Those with COVID-19 symptoms or those with a suspected contact with someone with the virus will not be permitted to enter judicial buildings. Because the Centers for Disease Control and state health officials recommend vulnerable individuals continue to self-isolate, immediate family members in the same household or direct caregivers of those who are in high-risk categories may, in certain circumstances and upon request, be excused by the presiding judge from jury service.

Also, health care workers assigned to treat COVID-19 patients or suspected patients may be excused if the presiding judge determines the request is warranted. Potential jurors who recently traveled out-of-state may have their service delayed by the presiding judge until they have satisfied the recommended 14-day quarantine period.

Exceptions to jury service must be approved on a case-by-case basis by the judge presiding over the trial.

According to the guidelines, it is up to the clerk and circuit judge to determine the standards for which disqualifications or excuses may be granted. Ultimately, it is still the responsibility of the circuit clerk and circuit judge to manage the jury pool, the guidelines said.

Judges are encouraged to use existing court space when possible, which may entail using large historic courtrooms or sharing large courtrooms. If no suitable spaces exist, alternative spaces in the community may be used, subject to approvals and orders by county officials.

Such facilities may include schools, auditoriums, civic centers, colleges or universities if they have appropriate audio and video technology to conduct a trial and can be properly secured.

The State Code provides circuit court must be held at the courthouse, except where another place is prescribed by law or lawfully appointed. However, when a courthouse “is not in a condition to be occupied,” a county commission may enter an order designating the alternative location.

Judicial officers may also consider holding jury panel orientations in a large alternative location until a jury is chosen and then hold the trial in the regular courtroom.

Potential jurors should not fail to appear for jury service because of fear of COVID-19 exposure, but should instead seek to be excused by the presiding judge. This requirement is not automatically waived or suspended during a pandemic.

Under West Virginia law, a person summoned for jury service who fails to appear for jury service without being excused by the presiding judge can be found guilty of civil contempt and be subject to substantial fines.

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