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Friday, March 31, 2023

Minnesota courts struggle with jury seating due to COVID pandemic

Minnesota Courts Struggle With Jury Seating Due To Covid Pandemic

Assembling a jury for a trial can be difficult enough, but if you add COVID-19, the task can seem monumental.

The pandemic has significantly affected the Minnesota judiciary. Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, victims, offenders, witnesses, prison staff and juries are at risk of contracting COVID. It also created backlogs, further complicating the court schedule.

Some fear that, under pressure, ordinary standards of justice could become more strained, if not compromised.

“There is no question that cases are being resolved and requests for transactions are being accepted that would not have been considered in the absence of COVID,” said Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.

Small, who is also a member of the National Association of District Attorneys, said tensions are being felt across the country. Participants expressed concern that both prosecutors and public defenders are “strongly encouraged” to solve cases, he said.

The pressure to clean up the court file is twofold: to make up for lost time, and because the longer the case drags on, the more difficult it is to put together all the pieces for the trial. Protracted legal proceedings, during which witnesses’ memories may fade, victims may refuse to testify, and experts may change jobs or move to another location, can also make it difficult to reach a fair decision.

“This is a crisis in the judiciary,” Small said.


Kyle Christopherson, a spokesman for the State Judicial Administrator’s Office, said it would be impossible to statistically prove that cases are being rushed to reach plea agreements because the state does not track these features. He added that even before the pandemic, most cases are usually settled by plea agreement, and that less than 5 percent actually go to trial.

The judiciary reports backlogs of 11,850 cases as of December, compared with 14,631 in July. The backlog is defined as the number of additional felonies and felonies pending compared to the number of pending cases at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Christofferson said.

As for jury trials, which by their very nature go against pandemic protocols of distancing from others, they were less than half the norm in 2020.

In 2019, there were 989 criminal jury trials in the state. In 2020, this number dropped to 455. In 2021, it increased to 850.


These efforts affect the judiciary.

“Everyone is doing a great job, but it comes at a price,” Chief Justice Michael Cuzzo said at a Minnesota Judicial Council meeting in December. Cuzzo represents the Sixth Judicial District, which includes Duluth.

“I think we’re really seeing our employees get stressed out by the level of work they’re doing. I think this is happening with judges from top to bottom,” he said. “But it just seems like at some point we kind of hit a limit where the staff is really stressed to a high level.”

Over the past two years, the board has taken several precautions to make jurors more comfortable.


Ruth B, 60, of Bloomington, spent two weeks in Hennepin County Circuit Court as a juror in a murder case in December. She was a juror 28 years ago and said the experience was very different.

“One thing was the jury box,” she said of her previous experience. “It was a tiny thing. We stood elbow to elbow. This area just disappeared.”

World Nation News Desk
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