Cook County explores online jury service, but poll finds hurdles

Cook County’s chief judge has explored the possibility of conducting jury trials via video conference as the court system faces an enormous case backlog since COVID-19 fears brought an end to courthouse trials in mid-March.

Timothy Evans | Wikipedia

But an online poll of potential jurors found some significant hurdles to making remote jury service a reality.

According to a memo from Chief Judge Timothy Evans, the poll of 2,512 potential jurors found that more than 20% of respondents have never used conferencing apps like Zoom, 16% don’t have access to camera-equipped computers, and 18% don’t have a place to participate in videoconferences without interruption.

Evans said jury administrators invited nearly 16,000 members of the county’s jury pool to take the online poll in October. About 16% of the invitees completed the online survey, he wrote in the memo dated December 2.

The chief judge barred criminal and civil jury trials earlier this year and he has extended that order repeatedly, most recently at the end of November, as the COVID-19 pandemic stretched on. There is no timetable for a return to jury trials in the county courts, a spokesperson for Evans said.

Fully 80% of survey respondents said they are not open to serving on an in-person jury at this time. About 14% said they are open to in-person or remote service, while 6% said they are only open to in-person juries, according to Evans’ memo.

Based on the survey results, the county would have to mail seven summonses to get just one prospective juror for remote trials, he said. The county would need to mail 32 summonses to get a single prospective juror to serve in person.

Last month, the Illinois Supreme Court entered an order allowing the state’s court systems to conduct civil jury trial selection remotely. Still, Evans’ spokesperson said they are not aware of any counties that have pursued the option. The supreme court order did not authorize remote jury service for any trials or remote jury selection for criminal cases.

Federal courts in Chicago resumed jury trials in early August, but they were put on hold again in early November as COVID cases increased. Recent filings there offer a hint of the litigation that likely awaits any jurisdiction that adopts remote jury service or screening.

Last week, attorneys representing defendants in high-profile ComEd corruption cases argued that the federal grand jury that indicted their clients might have been pulled from a biased jury pool.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate medical, and economic impact on certain populations,” attorneys argued on one motion. “This raises serious concern as to whether the grand jurors…were representative of the community.”

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