Can COVID concerns get me out of jury duty? Can the courts legally ask if I’m vaccinated?

Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn speaks with attorney Joe Oxman about the pandemic’s effect on the legal system as Philly begins to reintroduce jury trials.

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Color image of a gavel in a courtroom.

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As COVID numbers relax and more people get vaccinated against the virus, Philadelphia is beginning to re-notice individuals for in-person jury duty service.

Pre-pandemic, you may have had the experience of getting dismissed from jury duty because of important work, family constraints, or health conditions.

But now, can having concerns about getting COVID get you out of this civic responsibility? And can the courts ask you about your vaccination status?

Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn posed these questions to attorney Joe Oxman. He practices law in Pennsylvania and is a member of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association.

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Here’s some of what he had to say.

As of now, the courts, either the Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania or the federal courts for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Middle or Western District, or the Third Circuit, have not issued any edicts related to expanding the excuses for jury service to include COVID-19.

So it would be perhaps entirely up to individual judges to determine this?

Absolutely. It will be completely up to individual judges to determine whether or not a juror’s concern about COVID-19 would warrant a legitimate excuse to get out of serving jury duty.

Courts are asking potential jurors if they have recently had COVID symptoms, if they have COVID symptoms, if they think they’ve been exposed.

Yes, there has been circulating within the Court of Common Pleas and the federal courts a COVID-19 checklist that all the jurors fill out. I think if anyone checks a box in that questionnaire, I think they would be excused.

Can courts ask about vaccination status?

That’s a good question. I couldn’t tell you exactly. The courts have not decided whether or not they’re going to ask that question. And there hasn’t been any issue raised by trial counsel, either plaintiffs, defendants, or prosecutors related to that in terms of voir dire of jurors.

Which is the process to determine whether a potential juror is suitable to serve. Now, what complications could arise from asking someone about vaccination status?

The first problem would be whether or not it’d be a violation of HIPAA privacy laws. You’re asking a direct medical question of a person. Have you been vaccinated? Have you not been vaccinated? I would tend to believe that the extenuating circumstances of jury service would allow the courts to ask whether someone has been vaccinated or not. And if they have been vaccinated, I doubt that the court would grant any sort of COVID excuse in terms of a juror expressing concern that they may get COVID.

Could they compel someone to serve because they have been vaccinated?

Well, that’s the $64 question. I believe the court can compel someone to jury duty service if they’ve been vaccinated and they have no other potential enumerated excuses regarding medical condition, work, or family.

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Could you see courts helping to support the vaccination effort, maybe even offering vaccination opportunities? The court system could almost be a vaccination site.

I would love to see the courts become proactive in encouraging vaccination. Since the courts act as a clearinghouse of people, when you have hundreds of potential jurors coming into a single spot to report for jury duty, I think it would be a perfect situation to have vaccination specialists there to vaccinate everybody. Plus, it would also ensure that there will be enough jurors to have jury trials.

Well, thank you, Joe. Joe Oxman practices law in Pennsylvania and is a member of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association. Thanks for your time.

Thank you.

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