Justice Deferred

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We don’t get calls from judges very often. So when the Chief Judge of the District Court in Kansas contacted us asking for our help, he certainly got our attention.

Judge Thomas Kelly Ryan wanted to know what it would take to bring citizens back into the courtroom. It may not be something many of us have thought much about, but since the pandemic began there’s been virtually no criminal jury trials anywhere in the country. Now area courts are worried if they’ll ever be able to convince twelve people to sit next to each other in a courtroom again. Would you serve on a jury in the middle of a pandemic?

That’s what Judge Kelly and the District Court wanted to know. And could this public television station help them understand what it would take to get people to serve?

The district court in collaboration with our county Bar Association agreed to send out 12 official jury notices to citizens who were asked to join us on a video call. We had no say on who was chosen. These citizens were picked just like a regular jury.

Their candid exchanges from wearing masks, to sitting next to each other for hours on end was the basis for a program that has been shared with courts across the state of Kansas and is already changing the way area courts are working to reconvene juries.

Seldom do we engage in work that has such instantaneous results. But by answering a real life dilemma brought to us by an important community player, ‘Justice Deferred’ prompted swift change.

The Kansas Supreme Court’s Office of Judicial Administration shared the entire “Zoom Jury” feed with district courts administrators throughout the state of Kansas.

In the specific District Court featured in the broadcast, changes were made to the official plan to reconvene juries. The court’s administrator said, “We added temperature checks to the plan. We’re looking to purchase autonomous machines since we don’t have staff to implement manual checks. We added additional breaks for jurors following concerns over mask fatigue.”

Since broadcast, Kansas City PBS has been approached by other organizations interested in using the Zoom jury concept to answer critical questions they are confronting. From an area library that is working on how to safely reopen to the public to a local government who wants to impanel a random jury of citizens to help prioritize budget cuts. With the pandemic shrinking tax revenues would citizens reduce curbside recycling or the size of the public works crews that work on snow removal and pothole repair.

Viewer comments were gratifying:

“Your program this evening on the impact of the pandemic on our justice system was fascinating, insightful and honestly ground breaking. Good on you. No, great on you. And great for us, your viewers.

“This program last night was brilliant! It was fascinating and educational. What a great idea you had to do it and the way you did it.

“I’m not sure if KCPT is planning on archiving this program focusing on #COVID19’s impact on our justice system, but it will be very helpful to civics & government teachers. Judges & lawyers across the country are struggling with these issues – maybe @NewsHour should pick it up? Hats off to everybody involved this was very well done!”