Twelve Collin County residents were selected in the first-ever, virtual jury trial Monday. The jury selection was streamed on YouTube without a single internet interruption or user error or inappropriate gesture among the 26 Collin County residents streaming themselves from their homes.
No oversized dog demanded a lap-sit, no four year old showed off refrigerator art. And perhaps most surprisingly, not one juror was struck from the 26-person jury pool.
The first 12 jurors questioned were the 12 accepted, leaving the remaining 14 to make their very, very short early home commute.
From beginning to end the whole process took a smidge over 94 minutes. Judge Keith Dean, a retired jurist, presided as a visiting judge over the session from what appeared to be his Dallas office. Despite the novelty of the moment, his manner was calm, his instructions thoughtful and his patience apparent, even when one juror was slow to return from an authorized break.
“Usually, at this point, I’m sending a bailiff to tap him on the shoulder,” Judge Dean explained as the others listened to the delinquent juror’s end of a personal phone call.
Dallas lawyer Amy Stewart of Stewart Law seemed to tap the moment when she told prospective jurors she was proud to share the historic moment with them. “How many of you want to be on this jury?” she asked them. Moments later, all hands were raised.
This particular trial, regarding the failure of State Farm Insurance Company to pay for hail damage to a downtown McKinney office building, was chosen because it involved a non-binding summary proceeding: the trial, which might typically last a week, isn’t technically a trial. Whatever the jury determines will become part of an ongoing mediation. Still, the proceedings gave court administrators a chance to test the viability of teleconference technology for the conduct of future trials — trials that could help rural and remote jurisdictions satisfy the demands of justice without excessive rigor or expense.
David Slayton, executive director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, could be seen observing in the early moments of the proceedings. Slayton heads a five-state task force (Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Michigan are the other states) looking into the viability of the technology in the era of tight court budgets and stay-at-home restraints.
That a case in Collin County was selected was no accident. The county, one of the richest in the nation, has the highest level of education in Texas. And with a variety of high-tech companies like Toyota, Ericsson, Hewlett Packard and Raytheon, the county has one of the best-connected populations in the nation. How the technology might fare in Houston, Newark or Upstate Michigan will remain a question, regardless of a Collin County success.
And then there is Emily Miskel. Although Judge Dean was in charge of the proceedings Monday, at the controls of the experiment was State District Judge Emily Miskel. A Stanford-trained engineer and Harvard-trained lawyer, Miskel has been instrumental making Collin County a national leader in courtroom technology and services.
In the opening moments Miskel worked patiently and individually with the participants, making sure each of the prospective jurors were seeing what they needed to see. One prospective juror was using an iPhone to participate, and his presence was not appreciably different from those with computers. One wore headphones, several wore earbuds, one drank coffee and one talked briefly to someone off camera. All seemed attentive when they needed to be.
The experiment included several virtual courtroom moments that seemed to happen seamlessly. When Mark Pearson, a San Antonio-based lawyer for the building owners, asked that jurors be more visible during the first phase of voir dire (one participant described the screen as “The Brady Bunch on steroids”), Miskel reduced their on-screen presence from 26 to 12, sending 14 members of the panel to a virtual meeting room where they could visit with each other, but not hear what was happening in the courtroom.
Likewise, when the judge asked for a bench meeting to discuss jury selection, the attorneys and the judge met together in another virtual meeting room out of the presence of the jurors. It was when they returned that the judge announced the first 12 jurors heard had been selected.
As the jurors listened to one of their own on a personal phone call, Judge Dean said the situation would be different were they meeting together at the courthouse. Jurors would be forbidden their phones, and for some it would be painful at first. But after a few hours untethered, he said, the pain subsides.
“And I will tell you it becomes a few hours of bliss.”