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Virginia circuit court system moving slowly on jury trials

Steven Emmert

Steven Emmert

As most of the circuit courts in Virginia’s population centers are either preparing for or actively resuming jury trials, the bulk of Virginia courthouses still have not received jury trial approval from the Supreme Court.

As of Nov. 9, 27 circuit courts had been approved to start bringing jurors back into the courthouse. But another 93 courts were still waiting for the word from Richmond, according to L. Steven Emmert of Virginia Beach.

Even among the most populous communities, three Tidewater cities still had not been approved: Hampton, Portsmouth and Suffolk.

Emmert, an appeals specialist, briefed lawyers in a Nov. 6 dial-in session organized by the Virginia Bar Association to keep lawyers updated on COVID-19 developments.

The Supreme Court of Virginia on Nov. 9 extended its declaration of judicial emergency to Dec. 13. The official pandemic emergency began March 16.

Criminal jury trials take priority under the Virginia Code, but circuit courts are taking different approaches to restarting civil juries, Emmert explained.

“As for civil jury trials, you’re going to find an extremely wide variance between the circuits,” he said.

Norfolk had its first civil trial set for the week of Nov. 2-6, but it settled, Emmert reported. Norfolk judges were expecting two civil jury trials the following week, he said.

Richmond was planning only criminal juries through the end of this year. Judges were planning to discuss what to do about resuming civil jury trials, Emmert said.

Fairfax has signaled it will have only criminal jury trials through the end of 2021.

“They don’t expect any civil juries until the beginning of 2022, if you can imagine that,” Emmert said.

Roanoke has had criminal juries weekly, Emmert reported. That region’s first civil jury trial had been scheduled to start Nov. 2, but the case settled, according to Chief Judge David B. Carson of the 23rd Circuit. He said a week-long civil jury trial was scheduled for early December.

The major metro areas are all now approved to resume jury trials, with only three exceptions. “Only Tidewater is lagging behind,” Emmert said.

All Northern Virginia circuits, all three Richmond-area circuits and all three Roanoke-area courts have received approval.

Of 11 most populous cities in the state, only three are still waiting – all in Tidewater: Hampton, Portsmouth and Suffolk.

In more rural parts of Virginia, approval was equally slow in coming. Wythe on Oct. 21, Smyth Oct. 26 and Tazewell Oct. 28 were the only southwest Virginia counties approved as of Nov. 7, the Richlands News-Press reported.

Tazewell County spent $18,700 altering the courthouse HVAC system to prepare for jury trials, the paper reported.

With more than three quarters of Virginia’s circuit courts still unapproved, the return to a normal schedule of jury trials is still months or years away.

“That’s going to be a backlog in the judicial system, at least in the circuit courts and, even in the appellate courts, for many, many moons to come, probably through the end of 2021,” Emmert said.