South-central North Dakota courts prep to resume jury trials

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A number of safety changes are being implemented as courthouses in the South Central District of North Dakota prepare for resuming jury trials July 14 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The precautions include some physical changes that will be noticeable, such as the installation of Plexiglas barriers in areas where social distancing is difficult. Other changes will be more about scheduling and managing traffic, a task not easily accomplished in a building with space limitations the Bismarck Tribune reported.

“No courthouse is built to keep people 6 feet apart,” said Judge Bruce Romanick, presiding judge of the district.

The district, which covers nine counties, has 1,243 jury trials scheduled in the next year, court administrator Donna Wunderlich said.

The North Dakota Supreme Court suspended jury trials in March as the COVID-19 pandemic gained momentum. Officials have given considerable thought to the changes needed for restarting, Romanick said.

Potential jurors in the past were brought to a courtroom in groups of 40 or 50, Romanick said. That number will be divided into smaller groups of 10 or 12. Jurors who are picked will likely sit in the part of a courtroom usually reserved for the public because jury boxes won’t allow for social distancing. They'll deliberate in the courtroom instead of a smaller jury room.

Justin Balzer, supervising attorney at the Bismarck-Mandan Public Defender's office, said the backlog could be felt into 2021.

Workers will sanitize the courthouse daily, Wunderlich said. Potential jurors and the public will be screened to make sure they are healthy before they enter. Hand sanitizer, gloves and masks will be available to jurors, and they will be asked not to touch any surfaces, documents or objects that have not been sanitized, she said.

Officials will send potential jurors a questionnaire that will address age, contact with others, travel and other issues, Romanick said. People over age 60 can ask to be excused, since older adults are at higher risk for severe illness from the virus.

“We have to get trials going,” Romanick said. “We’re trying to make it as safe as possible for everyone coming to the courthouse in all counties.”