Utahns keep getting jury duty notices, but no trials in Salt Lake County ‘anytime soon’

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The Matheson Courthouse in 2016.

When Abby Evans looked through her mail last week, she was surprised to find that both her and her husband had been sent a questionnaire for jury duty — a service she figured had been paused because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We didn’t think they were still doing courts,” she said. “You don’t know what’s open and what’s not.”

Evans wasn’t too worried about being called as a juror. She’s been out and about in Utah in the past few months, trying to keep a face mask on and hand sanitizer ready. She figured if she did have to go, they would have a plan in place to keep jurors distant from each other and as safe as they can be.

But it’s highly unlikely that Evans — or anyone else who received jury duty questionnaires in recent weeks — will have to go to a courtroom anytime soon.

Jury trials are halted for at least the next six months in Utah, as all courts are considered in the “red phase” as defined by court officials. No trials will be held unless a district court asks the Utah judicial council to move to a “yellow phase,” which includes demonstrating that the rate of COVID-19 spread in that particular county has been stable or decelerating for at least two weeks. That hasn’t happened in Salt Lake County, where confirmed cases have continued to climb since mid-May.

“We don’t anticipate in-person jury trials are going to resume anytime soon in Salt Lake County,” said courts spokesman Geoff Fattah.

But Fattah said the jury questionnaire is still being sent because of a state law that says courts must have a jury pool available at all times. Court officials are trying to see if they can find a workaround, Fattah said, but for now, if someone gets a jury questionnaire, they should still fill it out — but with little expectation that they actually will have to come to the courthouse and serve on a jury.

Fattah said that when jury trials do resume, potential jurors can ask to not serve if they believe their health is compromised or if they are more at-risk to get COVID-19. The courts have also outlined a list of protective measures that will be taken, such as keeping the jury in a separate room so they can socially distance and streaming trials online so observers and members of the news media don’t need to physically be in the courtroom.

Court officials have said that they’ve chosen a more “cautious approach” than Gov. Gary Herbert’s color-coded plan, which has had most of the state in a “yellow” phase since May 16, despite rising case numbers.

The courts have taken a more conservative approach because, as officials put it, “the courts have the power to compel people to appear in court, either for a hearing, or for jury service.”

While in-person court hearings have largely shut down since March, judges have continued to hold “critical” hearings, like sentencings. Most of those have been done remotely through video hearings.