San Diego Superior Looks to Boost Juror Attendance as Trials Resume

San Diego Superior Court’s Hall of Justice (Courthouse News photo / Bianca Bruno)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Only 41 prospective jurors out of 800 San Diegans summoned for jury duty showed up for service Tuesday as San Diego Superior Court held its first jury trial since initially suspending court operations in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge Lorna Alksne told Courthouse News around 350 of the jurors who received summons in September asked the court to postpone their service.

The other 400 jurors were apparently no-shows Tuesday.

“I think people are afraid,” Alksne said.

She added, “I don’t want anyone to be here that doesn’t feel comfortable. Some people haven’t even been to the grocery store. But if you’re willing to go to the grocery store, you’re willing to have your hair done, you’re willing to go to church — those people are the ones I want.”

Alksne, who took over presiding judge duties this past January, said the court has never had trouble getting jurors to respond to their summons.

While she doesn’t expect no-show jurors will be found in contempt of court, she said “we’d have to look at everything that’s provided in the code.”

Even though the court has U.S. Centers for Disease Control social distancing measures in place and has outfitted four courtrooms — two of which are being used exclusively for jury selection interviews — with Plexiglas panels separating the judge, court staff, attorneys and jurors, Alksne said she wasn’t surprised the turnout was low.

“We can only have two trials going on in the county at a time, but until we start getting regular jurors that’s more than enough,” Alksne said.

“If we don’t get enough jurors it doesn’t matter how many courtrooms we get set up.”

Alksne said San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten toured the new courthouse setup last month and approved the Plexiglas barriers and social distancing protocols.

As of right now, San Diego Superior Court is poised to hold 10 criminal trials through the end of year, starting with one trial a week before eventually holding two trials a week.

The county’s three other criminal courthouses aren’t yet decked out in Plexiglas dividers necessary to hold jury trials — the last court service to resume operations since the court reopened in May.

Alksne said the San Diego County Public Defender’s Office and District Attorney’s Office compiled a list for the court of which criminal trials should be prioritized first.

Out of 20,000 pending criminal cases, San Diego Superior Court has a backlog of about 2,000 cases ready for trial, Alksne said.

Tuesday’s trial was for 61-year-old John Scarborough, who is charged with assault with a deadly weapon and elder abuse.

Voir dire questioning in Judge Frederick Link’s courtroom Tuesday mimicked the “Can You Hear Me Now” Verizon commercial, with Judge Link, attorneys and jurors all checking in with one another to ensure their responses were heard clearly.

Alksne said ensuring jurors are focused on the legal cases they are being asked to decide is a top concern as trials resume.

“Somebody’s civil rights are in balance and on the line and I need people who are focused. I can’t have people who are stressed and worried about their personal health. It’s a difficult time to ask people to serve and that’s why we’ve waited so long,” Alksne said.

Next week, the court will also hold the first civil bench trial heard before a judge rather than a jury, Alksne said. But “civil jury trials will be put on the back burner,” the judge added.

Some civil preference motions by litigants of certain age and health conditions have been approved by judges, Alksne said. For the preference motions that have been granted, the litigants are entitled to a trial within 180 days, she added.

But not all changes to court operations due to the pandemic have been negative.

Alksne said “access to justice is the silver lining of Covid,” noting family court has seen a higher number of appearances by litigants in virtual domestic violence hearings.

“Being able to appear remotely and not have to face someone in public you’re stating is an abuser is very empowering and not as scary,” Alksne said.

“More people are able to appear because it’s just on their telephone, they don’t have to take a day off work, get a babysitter or pay for parking. I think that is a worthwhile service we should continue,” she added.

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