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Johnson County judge receives national award for jury innovation

TOPEKA—District Judge Thomas Kelly Ryan of the Johnson County District Court received the 2022 G. Thomas Munsterman Award for Jury Innovation for engaging his local public TV station to help his court identify and address juror concerns early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ryan received the award at a statewide conference for judges last week. It was presented by retired Judge Gregory Mize, a judicial fellow at the National Center for State Courts who works with the organization’s Center for Jury Studies.

Mize said Ryan showed ingenuity by engaging public television to find out what concerned potential jurors about serving during the pandemic. 

“This project is particularly appropriate for this award because it shows how courts can use public media to gain insight and crowd input on any proposed court changes, whether it's related to jury trials or not,” Mize said.

In summer 2020, Ryan, who was then chief judge of the 10th Judicial District, asked Kansas City PBS for help to learn what it would take for jurors to feel comfortable reporting for jury duty. That one question resulted in “Justice Deferred,” a “Week in Review” special program hosted by Nick Haines.

The 30-minute ”Justice Deferred” program begins with 12 potential jurors sharing with Haines and Ryan their concerns about safety at a time when health protecting measures included physical distancing and wearing face masks. After the group is shown health protecting measures at the courthouse, they describe what more could be done to resolve their lingering concerns. The court used this input to modify its safe jury plan.

When presented the award, Ryan said he accepted it on behalf of the entire 10th Judicial District.

“It was all of us working together—it tjudges, staff, everyone,” he said. 

He also credited Nick Haines, director of the public affairs division of KCPBS and host of “Kansas City Week in Review".

“I am grateful to Nick Haines and Kansas City PBS for their help not just identifying juror concerns, but also educating the community about measures we had taken at the courthouse to protect the health of everyone who entered,” Ryan said. 

The 2022 G. Thomas Munsterman Award is one of several awards garnered by the project. 

In August, Haines was presented the American Gavel Award from the American Judges Association at the group’s annual meeting August 30 in Philadelphia. 

Last fall, Kansas City PBS was awarded a 2021 National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Mid-America Regional Chapter EMMY© for long-form video in the politics and government category for the program. Winners display outstanding cultural, educational, technological, entertainment, news, and informational achievements in television. 

The Johnson County Bar Association worked in conjunction with Kansas City PBS to support this outreach project, which created the “Justice Deferred” program. 

In their letter nominating Ryan for the award, Chief Justice Marla Luckert and judicial administrator Stephanie Bunten mentioned Ryan’s efforts to make the jury process more accessible and enjoyable.

“He played a key role in a years-long effort to replace an aging, overcrowded courthouse with a new, state-of-the art facility in Johnson County,” they wrote. “In the opening ceremony for that new courthouse Judge Ryan introduced it as “the people’s courthouse,” a place where the community could safely engage in “one of the most cherished civic duties . . . serving as a juror for a trial.”  

Named for the founder and former director of the National Center for State Court's Center for Jury Studies, G. Thomas Munsterman, the award recognizes states, local courts, organizations and individuals that have made significant improvements or innovations in jury procedures, operations and practices.

For more information, read the National Center for State Courts news release Kansas judge honored with national jury innovation award.