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Montana courts to limit jury-pool size, take other measures to head off coronavirus

Posted at 3:00 PM, Mar 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-14 17:00:40-04

Montana Chief Justice Mike McGrath has issued new requirements for courtrooms statewide in light of the coronavirus outbreak, including releasing at-risk individuals from jury duty, limiting the size of jury pools and pushing back bench trials to later dates

McGrath said in a Friday news release that the requirements will go into effect Monday with the goal of limiting large groups to stop the spread of the disease, known as COVID-19.

He also noted that courts are an "essential part" of society that can't close.

"Without the courts properly functioning society can begin to drift into disorder and chaos," McGrath wrote in the letter, which was addressed Montana district court judges and clerks, the Montana Water Court and Montana Courts of Limited Jurisdictions Judges.

Here are the requirements:

1. Jurors who are defined by the Centers for Disease Control as at-risk if they contract the virus must be released from reporting for jury duty, if requested. The requests must be granted over the phone – these prospective jurors should not be required to report. The CDC defines at-risk people as anyone over age 60 or people with underlying health conditions.

2. Jurors who are considered high or medium risk for exposure to the COVID-19 virus should be directed to not report. At this point, this is defined by the CDC as someone who has traveled to China, South Korea and most the European nations within the last 14 days or anyone with direct contact to a person diagnosed with the virus in the last 14 days. Again, these jurors should not be required to report and should be excused by phone. This can change and we will update you as information changes.

3. Attorneys or self-represented litigants scheduled for a jury trial through April 30th must be given the option – and should be encouraged - to request a continuance or a bench trial. Requests to continue criminal trials must include a waiver of speedy trial. Please notify your local parties scheduled for trial in the coming weeks of these options.

4. Judges calling large jury pools must locally find ways to provide extra space or have jurors report at different times in order to reduce large crowds. Again, this will have to be managed locally within your court.

5. It is crucial to have tissues, cleaning products and signs about handwashing in jury rooms and in other high-touch areas. Signage should be printed and posted throughout the courthouse and is available at:

6. Litigants and attorneys who arrive at court and report they are feeling unwell must be asked to reschedule their appearance. Jurors who report they are feeling ill must be dismissed.

7. Courts of Limited Jurisdiction, in particular, should remind litigants of the availability of the on-line CitePay system to dispose of routine matters such as speeding tickets.

8. Courts are encouraged to use video-conferencing and telephonic conferencing as much as possible.

9. The state Judicial Branch will limit non-essential travel for all staff. This may result in cancellation of non-essential meetings. Each judge locally will need to make decisions about what is non-essential, but we strongly encourage the use of video or telephone when possible.

10. The Branch is working on contingency plans to allow some state Branch employees to work remotely should that become necessary.

Montana has not had a reported case of coronavirus in state ( a Montana woman tested positive out of state in Maryland ), but McGrath said the courts must act as a precaution.