Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! ‘Summons to Serve as a Juror’

Critic At Large

COVID-19 pandemic greatly affects process

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – It’s been hard to push back against the coronavirus COVID-19 – edicts and rules and warnings and scares and illnesses and gremlins all around.

But the Constitution is the Constitution.

And sometimes it comes to your door. You are summoned to serve.

The United States Constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury… COVID-19 pandemic or not.

That last phrase is not in the Seventh Amendment, but it is being played out for real.

Allowances for COVID-19 concerns greatly affected a portion of the process I was summoned to be a part of.

A few months ago, I was mailed a questionnaire from the Brown County, Wisconsin, court system. In short, I qualified to be called to be a juror.

Then, just after the first of the year, the summons arrived:

“You have been duly drawn to serve as juror in the Circuit Court in and for the County of Brown, Wisconsin, to be held at the courthouse, in the City of Green Bay, in said county.”

The summons.

In the mail packet was a form to fill out and mail that revealed how seriously COVID-19 is taken by the court system by a special plan put in place last year by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Included was two-sided 8½ by 11-inch sheet with 10 questions on a “COVID-19 Juror Questionnaire.” A sample:

No. 1: “To the best of your knowledge, have you been exposed to COVID-19?”

No. 4: “Do you have any underlying health condition(s) that make you nervous or apprehensive about serving as a juror due to COVID-19?”

No. 5: “Is there any other reason you are nervous or apprehensive about serving as a juror due to COVID-19? In answering this question, please consider that all jurors and participants will be required to wear masks, the courtroom will be arranged to accomplish social distancing where possible, and if not possible, Plexiglas barriers have been installed. Hand sanitizer will be available.”

No. 7: “Do you believe wearing a mask or complying with other COVID-19 precautions will impact your ability to serve as a fair and impartial juror?”

A “yes” to any question would prompt further action.

The questionaire.

The summons in the packet included my juror ID number and my panel ID.

I was “required to attend without fail” on four dates in February.

The summons included instructions on where to park, and a map in a handbook showed the location of the courthouse.

And there was this: “It is each juror’s responsibility to call (xxx-xxxx, a phone number) each day before the summoned dates after 4:30 p.m. for information regarding the status of the following day’s trial schedule.”

With the phone call, things get really interesting.

The recorded message tells the status of six prospective jury panels. Some panels do not have to report the next day. Mine is among the ones that are to report, though not to the courthouse. Instructions are given for parking in a ramp across the street from the KI Convention Center in downtown Green Bay a half mile or so from the courthouse.

The next morning, it happens that three other guys who parked in the ramp wander toward the convention center following instinct because of non-existent signage. We happen to converge at an elevator.

Inside, I ask, “Jury duty?”

After two mumbled positive responses and a noncommittal silence, I say, “Good. We’re all lost together.”

On the first floor, three of us follow the lead of Mr. Noncommittal Silence, whose internal GPS finds the unmarked entrance to THE PLACE.

Near the doorway is table manned by four men, all masked. They ask for names and tell us to sign next to ours on a list. At least two of the men are bailiffs – go-to people for keeping things in order.

I recognize THE PLACE from having been in it when it served as a kind of winter farmer’s market.

THE PLACE is about the size of a football gridiron.

A bailiff invites me to pick a seat. There are 100 seats – 10 rows by 10 chairs. (I am a newsperson. We count chairs. It goes with the territory).

I settle in on an edge so I can look across the field of chairs toward the business end of the setup – a raised area in a corner section of the hall for a table for the judge and any assistants – in this case, one.

In front of the raised area are, left to right, a table for the prosecuting attorneys, a spot for the court reporter and a table for the defense team and defendant.

To the left is an area for more chairs – 22 – facing the business setup.

Eventually near the front, two Brown County Sheriff’s Office deputies take positions.

Approximately 50 people are present as potential jurors.

Everybody is masked.

A person seated near me wears a clear-plastic mask. Along the way, the judge scans all in attendance and says to the person, essentially, “Hey, plastic masks are not allowed. They have to be cloth and cover the mouth and nose. Any problem with that?”

“Well, I could be good for an hour,” the person says and pulls out a cloth mask.

The person puts on the cloth mask but immediately fudges about covering the nose and sits that way the rest of the time.

For more background, here is information from a letter that arrived as part of the summons packet. It is about matters the Founding Fathers didn’t plan on for the Seventh Amendment:

Amendment for right for jury trial.

In the letter, the judge says, “I write you to inform you of special considerations and procedures that have been implemented for jury trials given the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Portions of the letter the judge will repeat in person…

+ That “the right to trial by jury is one of the cornerstones of our democracy”…

+ That “jury trials necessarily involve sacrifice from citizens called upon to serve”…

+ That “the situation has always been true, but it is especially true during these unique and trying times”…

+ That “we will take every reasonable precaution to maintain your health, as well as that of the parties, attorneys and court staff during a trial.”

The letter lists seven safety precautions and protocols (edited):

  1. Social distancing may require prospective jurors to report to a different building for jury assembly and selection.
  2. Signs list symptoms that would exclude entry.
  3. Prospective jurors have their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer as they enter.
  4. A medical procedure mask, or cloth equivalent, is required to be worn.
  5. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is available.
  6. In a courtroom (not applicable in THE PLACE), jurors are spaced apart farther than prior to COVID-19, and Plexiglas barriers are placed between jurors.
  7. The jury box, jury room and jury room rest rooms are cleaned each time the court recesses.
Judge’s letter.

In THE PLACE, the judge and other persons speak using microphones.

From the overall panel of prospective jurors, 22 are randomly selected. As each name is called, that person walks to the sector of 22 chairs and is directed to a specific seat. The effect is a bit dramatic because the next person is not called until the previous person is seated. The judge and attorneys have seating charts, which come into use.

I am among the 22.

When prospective jurors need to respond to questions, a staff member walks to that person with a hand-held microphone.

Voices are muffled. Some responses need to be repeated.

Everything moves methodically and to me is more fascinating than boring. It’s a people-watching thing with everybody in masks.

The process now becomes standard. The COVID-19 situation does not really come into play – except that it exists.

Questions are along the line of have you read about the case? (the charge being attempted homicide)… do you know the attorneys, the witnesses (which are read aloud), anybody on the panel of potential jurors? We are reminded that the goal is to find a fair and impartial jury.

A few potential jurors’ responses lead them to being excused, with another person from the larger pool taking his or her seat.

But excusing does not come easily. When one person tries to beg off serving, the judge sternly says, “I need jurors.”

I have some yes answers.

One is inconsequential. Do you know anybody on the panel? “Brett Crabb. He’s an artist, and he drew the cover of my latest book.”

Warren Gerds, left, and Brent Crabb. (Peggy Crabb)

In the end, I am not selected to be among the 14 jurors to report the next day to the Brown County Courthouse for the trial.

Questions that brought up a situation in my family history I think created concern among one attorney or other.

A person in the original pool who recognized me joked afterward that I’ve probably seen enough theater.

So my picking-a-jury-in-a-pandemic story ends there.

But it still reveals challenging lengths that are gone through for one trial in one city in one state out of the necessity of guaranteeing the right of a jury trial to all Americans.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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