Carter Stein, president-elect of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, is concerned about the lack of civil jury trials in Arkansas state courts since the middle of March, when the coronavirus began to overwhelm the state and country.
“I’m unaware of any state courts in our 75 counties that are trying civil jury trials in 2020,” said Stein, managing partner at the McMath Woods firm in Little Rock. “We always say, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ If you can’t get a trial date and keep your trial date, then that’s very difficult for our clients.”
In July, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Chris Piazza said there would be no civil jury trials in the Pulaski County Courthouse for the remainder of the year because of COVID-19. Those trials were rescheduled for 2021.
In Arkansas, it’s up to the local courts to decide whether to hold a civil jury trial during the pandemic.
Stein said some of the federal courts in Little Rock have had jury trials, but those federal courtrooms are larger and can meet social distancing and other safety requirements.
In the meantime, Stein said, he’s trying to move his cases along and get them ready for trial with virtual hearings, virtual depositions and some in-person depositions.
“We’re doing what we can to get our cases ready for, hopefully, civil jury trials in 2021,” Stein said.
The backlog of civil cases seems to be in jurisdictions that typically have higher case loads, said the Administrative Office of the Courts, which works to support the state courts on behalf of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
“For the most part, smaller jurisdictions are not showing signs of a growing backlog at this point,” Marty Sullivan, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said via email last week.
Of the 123 circuit judges in Arkansas, more than 30, including Piazza, are retiring at the end of December.
To move cases along, the AOC is working with the chief justice of the state Supreme Court on a plan to use the retiring judges in places that have a backlog once the pandemic is over, he wrote.
“The Supreme Court monitors case backlogs and will get the circuit courts the resources they need,” Sullivan said. “We know the timely disposition of cases is critical to ensure public trust and confidence in our judicial system.”
Some civil jury trials have taken place in other parts of the country during the pandemic, said Steven Quattlebaum of the law firm Quattlebaum Grooms & Tull of Little Rock. He is the chair of the American Board of Trial Advocates COVID-19 Task Force. And those trials seem to be working.
“We haven’t seen mistrials,” Quattlebaum said. “What we are seeing is that the efforts by courts to get back into the courtroom are actually working.”
He said after the trial jurors are reporting that they are comfortable serving in person, given all the protection that is provided.
“And those that have participated in the virtual trial have given favorable reports on that experience as well,” Quattlebaum said.
There’s no moratorium on jury trials in the 10th Judicial Circuit of Arkansas, serving five southeast counties, “but there are real issues with how to conduct them safely,” said Paul Keith, president of the Arkansas Bar Association and partner at Gibson & Keith in Monticello.
He said the courtrooms that were built nearly a century ago could hold 200 people, space that could be used to meet social distancing requirements. New courthouses, though, are much smaller.
Holding a virtual trial in southeast Arkansas seems almost out of the question, Keith said.
“There are many areas in rural Arkansas that don’t even have cellphone service, much less high-speed internet that would be required” for virtual trials, Keith said.
Still, Quattlebaum said he thinks that there will be more civil trials in Arkansas.
“We will get better at anticipating what problems could arise and accommodating jurors to protect them in ways that make them comfortable,” he said.
And courts will find other venues in which to hold trials, such as movie theaters or auditoriums, he said.
Stein said the delay in getting a trial “certainly doesn’t help the plaintiff,” but he’s not sure it helps the defendant either.
“Both sides want to get resolution in these cases,” he said.