Editorial: COVID-19, courts don’t go together

The Editorial Advisory Board
Wichita courtroom

Courts in Kansas are going above and beyond in dealing with challenges of COVID-19 as they aim to resume jury trials.

Officials are installing Plexiglas barriers, requiring masks and social distancing, and limiting the total number of people in courtrooms. Unfortunately, as a story by The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Titus Wu suggests, that still might not be enough.

Why not? Courthouses simply aren’t built for pandemics, and the right to a trial in front of a jury of one’s peers is sorely tested when those peers must obey a stringent and evolving list of safety requirements. Lawyers are concerned that masks cover their faces and make emotions difficult to convey. And those on trial, if they’re being held in jail or prison, may present virus risks of their own.

Meanwhile, the right to a speedy trial is stretched if court dates are simply delayed.

Frankly, Wu’s story does an outstanding job of painting a situation where there are no easy answers. You know that’s the case when some sources suggest moving trials outside to allow easier public access.

We all deserve an accessible and convenient court system. We have a right to it. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be expected to put our health at risk to access that system. Those accused of heinous crimes enjoy a presumption of innocence, after all. Surely those serving as jurors or witnesses should enjoy the presumption of basic health.

The basic question of “one’s peers” comes into play, too. If potential jurors are afraid to serve because of the virus, or if they’re in a high-risk group, it’s easy to imagine the pool of willing jurors shrinking. Before the pandemic, serving in a jury was too often seen as a burden or inconvenience. If it’s also a health hazard, who on Earth will be left to step up and serve for the cause of justice?

The unfortunate fact is, courts across Kansas may simply be forced to wait.

We applaud those who have taken safety and health seriously. If judges and attorneys believe trials can continue on a limited basis, they should be encouraged to do so. But the realities of our current crisis suggest that a full-scale return will require a vaccine and widespread immunity.

That’s going to take time, although hopefully less than we expected even a few months ago.