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Law & Order

Masking Up and Swearing In: Jurors To Return To St. Louis-Area Courts

An illustration showing Lady Justice with a mask over her face.
David Kovaluk
/
St Louis Public Radio
Jurors in the 22nd Circuit Court will be required to wear masks in the court. They will also undergo temperature checks at the door and be provided with individual hand sanitizer, personal document packets, lunches and socially distanced seats.

Updated at 11:46 a.m., Sept. 18 to reflect the St. Louis circuit court canceling jury service for the week of Sept. 21

Since March, the courts in the St. Louis region have done the vast majority of their business online to combat the spread of coronavirus. That, in part, is about to change.

City residents summoned for jury duty could begin serving in person next Monday, Sept. 28, entering courtrooms that have remained mostly empty for months. Jurors were scheduled to appear at court on Monday, but on Friday jury service for the week of Sept. 21 was canceled. The circuit court in St. Louis County is planning to open for jurors in mid-October, while St. Charles County returned on Aug. 17.

Like many other public places, however, the court building at 10 N. Tucker Blvd. will have a very different look and feel than it did before the pandemic.

“I’m going to give you a long answer,” 22nd Circuit Court Jury Supervisor Joanne Martin said when asked what changes prospective jurors can expect to see.

Temperature checks at the door, mandatory masks, individual hand sanitizer, personal document packets, provided lunches, socially distanced seats, staggered jury selection, and Plexiglas in some courtrooms to separate judges, clerks and attorneys. And that is just the beginning of the list.

Martin also explained that prospective jurors will no longer all report at 8 a.m. Instead, people will be in staggered groups of 25, arriving every hour. Only two trials are scheduled each week, and during the trials, witnesses will now testify from the jury box, while jury members sit spread throughout in the gallery normally reserved for the public.

Most of these precautions come directly from orders by the Missouri State Supreme Court on how lower courts can, through four operational phases, get back to mostly regular proceedings.

“That order, and every set of operational directives issued since, made one vital principle clear: The courts of the State of Missouri shall remain open,” said George W. Draper III, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, on Wednesday in a virtual speech to the Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri

But staying open requires both changes in safety procedure by the courts themselves and residents willing to participate.

“It did seem like the county was trying to help out in letting people know the extra measures being taken,” said Stephanie Turza, a University City resident who received her letter for jury duty in St. Louis County just last week.

“I will absolutely fulfill my civic duty,” Turza said. ”But it seems like the jury process is built to transmit contagious disease.”

The inherent risk courtrooms pose is similar to the risks that grocery store and office space operators have been grappling with for months.

Courthouses, like most workplaces, can take steps to be safer, said Dr. Stephen Lawrence, a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Disease.

“Maintaining a safe environment revolves around a few core actions,” Lawrence said. His list includes universally wearing masks, constant social distancing, frequent hand-washing or use of hand sanitizer, limiting crowds and having good airflow.

“We have had quite a bit of experience across the country in having workplaces operating safely when all of those measures are meticulously followed,” Lawrence said.

But “meticulously” is a term tricky to quantify. For Stephanie Anderson, a Ballwin resident who received her summons last month, the court’s precautions just don’t outweigh the risks.

“It’s the selection part, when you’re in the waiting period, in the waiting room with the whole pool,” Anderson said. “To do that indoors, I don’t know how you make that safe enough to go.”

Residents summoned in any of the three circuit courts can ask for a continuance, or delay, in their service. Anderson requested to delay her jury duty until April 2021, but she’s still not sure that will be long enough.

As jury supervisor, Joanne Martin said she deeply understands people feeling a difficult mix of unease and obligation.

“When you’re invited to a wedding you can decide if you want to or if you don’t want to go,” Martin said. ”When people get a jury summons, a lot of our citizens are very conscientious and they feel like they have to be here. We want them to know they can call us.”

St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann contributed to this report.

Follow Becca on Twitter: @itsreallyflick

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