Courts rethink jury trials amid virus

  • Judge Robert D.S. Kim. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

As jury service questionnaires are appearing in Big Island mailboxes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Third Circuit Chief Judge Robert D.S. Kim offered assurance the Judiciary is doing everything possible to keep jurors safe.

“We are not letting this into our courthouse,” Kim said.


Everything the Judiciary is doing to prepare for resumption of jury trials is directed by the Department of Health.

“The three things the Department of Health tells us is everyone has to have cloth or surgical masks, have a 6-foot radius (between jurors) and cannot have someone who has had contact with someone who has COVID,” Kim explained. “We have a protocol on how we are going to do the trials. We have a plan, but we are going to have a mock trial, because it is all conceptual.”

The “mock trial” will give the staff a chance to put into action the plan’s social distancing measures and safety procedures.

“When we set up the courtroom, every seat has a 6-foot radius,” he said. “There will be a spill-off room which will have live camera because the courtroom will have to accommodate the jury.”

For those wanting witness a jury trial, including family members, a live feed will be provided outside of the courtroom in order to keep the jury and everyone in the courtroom safe.

Kim said the Third Circuit is shooting for trials to resume Oct. 5. Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald in March suspended jury trials until after April 30 and subsequently moved the date several times to the current anticipated date of Oct. 2.

“We are ready to go but with the numbers, things can change,” Kim said.

Something new in the questionnaire the 70,000 Hawaii Island potential jurors for next year will see is an attachment notifying potential jurors to reschedule jury service if they have a cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, fever, chills, muscle pain, sore throat or new loss of taste or smell; have traveled outside Hawaii in the past 14 days or have had close, prolonged contact with a person who has or is suspected to have COVID-19.

For those who return the questionnaire and are selected for a jury pools, the Judiciary will be bringing less potential jurors in at one time. Rather than having all potential jurors in one courtroom, they may have three courtrooms for the jury selection with video hook-up, and only 12 seats available in the gallery at one time.

“If a person is dismissed, they will leave and the janitor will come in and disinfect the seat before the next juror is called for questioning,” Kim said.

To continually improve, Kim said a questionnaire will be distributed after every jury selection, even if someone didn’t get selected. Among the questions would be “what did you think? How can we improve? and Did you feel safe?”

“We’re only going to try and get better and better,” he said.

Currently jury trials that were set for August are being continued to December. As trial dates approach, continuations are being made in accordance to Recktenwald’s orders.

“Bottom line of what I want to convey to the public is we are taking this real seriously. We are not making exemptions, whether it be judges, staff, attorneys, there’s no exemptions,” Kim said. “We are doing everything we can to keep people safe when the time comes. And if we can’t, we’re not going to do it. If it’s unsafe, we are not going to put people at risk.”

Kim said they need jurors’ help because our system only works with citizen participation.

“If that breaks down, our whole system breaks down,” said Kim. “We don’t take it lightly. That’s why we haven’t started it.”

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