EPCOR jury pool shrinks to 22 (January 11, 2022)

BULLHEAD CITY — Twenty-two Mohave County residents soon will be receiving an invitation they can’t — by law — refuse.

The 22 will be ordered to appear Jan. 24 for jury selection before the start of the trial to determine how much the City of Bullhead City must pay for ownership of EPCOR Water Arizona’s local distribution system.

They passed the first round of jury selection — scrutiny by counsel and the court of a lengthy questionnaire after 120 county residents were selected for the original jury pool.

For the first time, those prospective jurors could complete the questionnaire online, an added layer to the selection process meant to pare the field before requiring court appearances for those who remain on the list.

Previously, all 120 jurors would have been required to report to begin the selection process.

The online voir dire process has been successful in other Arizona counties, eliminating the need for a large group of jurors to show the day of trial while still effectively and safely selecting a panel, Superior Court Clerk Christina Spurlock said after the county announced it would be using the online process.

Of the original pool of 120, 15 were dismissed for statutory reasons — they met at least one of criteria accepted by the court regarding health, age, physical or mental ability to serve or residency.

Eighty-two others completed the questionnaire, either online or at one of the Superior Court locations with copies of those questionnaires sent to counsel on both sides — and Gurtler — for review.

The other 23 — who did not reply to the original notification — still could show up on Jan. 24 as well; they also could be subject to legal action for failure to respond to the summons.

Before going through the tedious, time-consuming process of juror elimination, Gurtler gave counsel a couple of options for conducting the trial, including the possibility of a remote trial via an electronic video platform.

The Arizona judicial system recently authorized use of remote means for conducting jury trials, if necessary, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That would not be optimal, would it, said one member of the city’s legal team.

Joe Conner, a member of EPCOR’s legal team, was more direct. We do not want to be a guinea pig, I’m sorry, your honor, for a Zoom jury trial.

After that pronouncement, Gurtler and the legal teams went juror-by-juror through the 82-person list.

Jurors were identified by number — 1 through 82 — as the sides raised concerns about impartiality or competency based on answers to a variety of questions on the questionnaire.

Juror 1… Gurtler said, starting the 90-minute examination.

The questionnaire pulled opinions about the city and EPCOR, awarding substantial sums of money for court cases, knowledge or preconceived feelings about the case, stances on eminent domain proceedings, the impact of court rulings and other topics, including concerns about COVID.

The court has adopted health screening protocols and other measures such as social distancing and frequent courtroom cleaning in an effort to make the court surroundings as safe as possible.

Those who listed a concern about COVID on their questionnaire were placed in one stack with court employees told to contact those prospective jurors and communicate the protocols before requesting their presence Jan. 24.

The 22 selected for jury summonses came from the 82 questionnaires and did not list COVID-19 as a concern.

The parties reached that number with a procession of strikes for cause requested by either side — sometimes both sides — and approved by Gurtler.

Cause for removal from the list included unavoidable scheduling conflicts — at least two are scheduled to have surgery either immediately before the trial or during its two-week window and another is moving out of the county.

Others were struck because of opinions expressing prejudice in the case one way or the other.

The most frequent cause was a no answer to a question about being able to follow jury instructions.

I would like to think I’m practical, that I’ve got some common sense, Gurtler said as he presided over the process.

Not all of the 22 on the list were without concerns by legal counsel but Gurtler said those concerns will be addressed during continued voir dire on Jan. 24, when attorneys will meet the jurors face-to-face for additional questioning.

On Friday, Gurtler said those jurors will be notified for their court appearance and likely would be assigned to one of two panels.

The first group will report at 8:30 a.m. for instructions with two hours set aside for questioning. The process will repeat with the second group, starting at 1 p.m.

Ultimately, Gurtler said, the case will be heard by an eight-person jury.

The jury will decide the sale price the city must pay for EPCOR Water Arizona’s local assets. The city began operating the water utility on Sept. 1 after posting an $80 million bond collected by EPCOR.

Source: Bill McMillen, Mohave Daily News