The Full Order and Notice is attached below for your convenience.
The Supreme Court has authorized the incremental resumption of new Civil and Criminal jury trials, which have been suspended for more than four months because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Attached to this notice are the Court’s July 22, 2020 Order and the Report on Resuming Jury Trials.
Atlantic/Cape May, Bergen, and Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem will be the first Vicinages to resume certain jury trials, beginning with Criminal trials involving a single detained defendant. Over the coming months, trials will gradually resume in all counties and will expand to include Civil as well as Criminal cases.
The Court-approved plan for resuming jury trials replicates to the greatest extent possible standard pre-COVID-19 processes, including as to the issuance of summonses to prospective jurors; availability of online and hard copy options for qualification; resolution by staff of certain statutory pre-reporting excuses (e.g., disqualification of jurors who have relocated outside of the summoning county); and general prescreening of qualified jurors for availability for the trial schedule.
Virtual Voir Dire – Including Distribution of Technology
All case-specific questioning of jurors will be conducted by a judge in the presence of the attorneys and parties, with the difference being that most voir dire will be conducted virtually rather than in physical courtrooms. As with the ongoing virtual grand jury pilot program, the Judiciary will in all cases provide technology to jurors where it is necessary to support their participation in virtual proceedings.
Following virtual questioning and for-cause excusals, a small group of jurors will be directed to report in person to the courthouse for the final phase of selection, including the exercise of peremptory challenges. That in-person phase of the selection process will be conducted observing social distancing requirements and with jurors and others generally required to wear masks. Once that phase of the selection process has been completed, selected jurors will be empaneled for a socially distanced in-person trial, which will be conducted in accordance with public health guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the New Jersey Department of Health (NJ DOH). Empaneled jurors will be required to wear masks, which the Judiciary can provide, as needed. Throughout the trial the Judiciary will enforce social distancing to avoid close contact between trial participants. We will provide designated restrooms and break areas, and, in coordination with building owners, we will arrange for additional cleaning and sanitizing.
Selection of Cases for Trial
During this beginning phase of the resumption of jury trials, total trial activity will be substantially less than during normal pre-COVID-19 operations, with the goal being to be conducting at least one Civil trial and one Criminal trial at any particular moment in each county in the coming months. Assignment Judges and Presiding Judges will work closely with attorneys to identify the cases that will proceed, taking into account standard factors (e.g., the length of time a criminal defendant has been detained) as well as factors relevant to social distancing (e.g., the occupancy challenges associated with cases involving multiple parties). Attorneys and parties will be invited to walk through the physical layout of courtrooms in advance and to review any proposed technological supports (e.g., large-screen monitors to display evidence) or health precautions (e.g., plexiglass barriers for witnesses).
Critical Areas of Focus
- Preventing and Responding to COVID-19 Risks
The Court’s plan for resuming jury trials depends on strict adherence to public health guidelines for all persons in court facilities, especially trial participants. Judges will exercise primary responsibility for ensuring that courtroom occupants avoid close contact, which the CDC defines as being closer than 6 feet for more than 10-15 minutes or coming into direct contact with bodily fluids (e.g., being coughed on). If a juror or other trial participant during any portion of the in- person proceedings is diagnosed with COVID-19 or develops symptoms consistent with the virus, the Judiciary will notify those persons who are or may be at risk. More detailed information on the Judiciary’s COVID-19 exposure notification protocols will be provided before the first jurors report for selection.
- Safeguarding Constitutionality
The processes authorized by the Court in support of the incremental resumption of jury trials uphold the constitutional rights of parties, including criminal defendants. As in standard in-person operations, attorneys and parties will participate during all case-specific questioning of jurors. By reconfiguring courtrooms and making effective use of technology, trial participants will be able to see jurors both during the virtual selection process and during socially distanced in-person trials.
Attorneys will be supported in communicating with their clients during the virtual jury selection and the socially distanced in-person trial. Options for supporting safe direct attorney-client communications include installation of partial plexiglass dividers, exchange of private notes, and/or use of earbuds similar to those used by interpreters. Appropriate measures also will be implemented to ensure that witnesses are visible when testifying, whether protected by a plexiglass barrier or wearing a transparent face shield.
- Supporting Representative Juries
The Judiciary will enable all qualified and available jurors to participate in virtual jury selection, whether by using their individual personal technology (e.g., laptop or smartphone with camera functionality) or by using devices supplied by the Judiciary (e.g., tablet with broadband capability). In additional to ensuring inclusive jury panels, the Judiciary will support juror service for in-person trials by enforcing public health precautions, including wearing masks; maintaining social distancing; and frequently cleaning and disinfecting shared areas.
Development and Ongoing Improvements
The Court-approved plan incorporates many of the recommendations of the Judiciary’s Post-Pandemic Planning Committee on Resuming Jury Trials. Assignment Judge Bonnie J. Mizdol (Bergen) serves as chair of that Committee, with Trial Court Administrator Jason Corter (Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem) as vice-chair. The Committee’s initial recommendations were refined and supplemented by the Judiciary’s Post-Pandemic Stakeholder Coordinating Committee, which includes representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, the Office of the Public Defender, the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Bar Association, the New Jersey Department of Health (NJ DOH), and others.
The Court appreciates comments and suggestions provided over the past few weeks by Criminal and Civil practitioners, including leadership of the New Jersey State Bar Association, the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, the New Jersey Association for Justice, and the American Civil Liberties Union (New Jersey). As Criminal and Civil jury trials resume in the coming months, we welcome ongoing input from judges, attorneys, jurors, and the public.
Conclusion and Questions
Resuming jury trials is critical to supporting comprehensive court operations during the evolving COVID-19 public health crisis. This is a temporary solution to unprecedented circumstances. We will return to normal in-person jury operations as soon as it is safe to do so. In the interim, the New Jersey courts will continue to provide information about jury trials and all upcoming court operations, including on our public webpage, njcourts.gov.
Questions on this notice and the Supreme Court Plan for Resuming Jury Trials should be directed to the Office of the Administrative Director at (609) 376-3000.
/s/ Hon. Glenn A. Grant, J.A.D.
Acting Administrative Director of the Courts
Dated: July 22, 2020