On Friday, February 19th, Judge Glenn A. Grant, J.A.D., Administrative Director of the Courts, held a “Listening Session on Court Operations” with more than 120 participants, including the assignment judges, trial court administrators, and county bar association leaders from Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, and Union Counties.
The virtual roundtable focused on five main areas: (1) virtual civil jury trials; (2) landlord-tenant operations and options for attorneys to support settlement efforts and provide representation; (3) technology resources, including courthouse technology rooms; (4) municipal court practice and the future of municipal courts; and (5) health and safety protocols in state court facilities. A summary of the overarching themes of the conversation with pertinent links relating to the topics of discussion can be found below.
- Virtual Civil Jury Trials
The New Jersey Supreme Court in its January 7, 2021 Order authorized a two-phase approach to virtual civil jury trials, with trials initially starting in a few counties and proceeding only with the consent of all parties, and then as of April 5, 2021 expanding statewide with no requirement of consent. As noted in its Order, the Court solicited early input from stakeholders and considered 45 public comments submitted in response to its initial proposal, which was published for comment in November.
The first three virtual civil jury trials have been conducted in Gloucester, Monmouth, and Passaic Counties. The Court’s February 1, 2021 Order amended two provisions of the January 7, 2021 Order, including to provide that recordings of those first trials will be posted on the Judiciary’s website after review (rather than live broadcast) to make sure that images of jurors are not inadvertently shown. Those videos now are posted on the public website.
The Judiciary has developed additional resources to support judges, attorneys, and parties in upcoming virtual civil jury trials. Those resources include a model order to be customized and completed in advance of the trial as well as instructions to jurors on how to participate in a virtual session.
Ongoing input from judges, attorneys, and jurors will be critical to refining and sustaining the success of virtual civil jury trials. I welcome your suggestions for additional options and your requests for resources that will assist attorneys in navigating this new way of trying cases.
- Landlord-Tenant (LT)
Executive Order 106 imposed a moratorium on residential evictions, and landlord/tenant trials remain suspended (with limited exceptions as provided in the Court’s July 14, 2021 Order). While LT trials are on hold, however, the Judiciary is continuing to support opportunities for settlement, including through voluntary pretrial/settlement conferences that as of now are conducted virtually. As necessary, individuals may request use of courthouse “technology rooms” to participate in those virtual events.
Looking ahead to the large number of LT cases that will be before the courts when the eviction moratorium expires, the Judiciary is exploring the use of the Judiciary Electronic Document Submission (JEDS) System as a platform for the submission of evidence for LT matters. We also are continuing to focus on the clarity of court-generated notices, to ensure that recipients understand how their court events will be conducted.
Assistance from attorneys is and will continue to support improvements in LT matters. As discussed at the February 19 listening session, attorneys can earn Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credits by training to serve as LT settlors. Training and resources also will be provided to members of the bar who take on pro bono representation of eligible parties in LT matters. Attorneys who provide 25 hours of legal representation to those clients will be entitled to an exemption from their Madden requirements for the following year.
- Technology Resources
As we have throughout the pandemic, the Judiciary is continuing to leverage technology to ensure access to the courts and to continue operations to the greatest extent practicable. In addition to the technology rooms established in all counties, the Judiciary distributes tablets (with Broadband as necessary) to summoned and empaneled jurors who require them to participate in jury selections, grand jury sessions, and, shortly, in virtual jury trials. Court staff also provide training to jurors and assistance to court users to ensure that everyone has meaningful access to the justice system.
- Municipal Court Operations – and the Future of Municipal Courts
In mid-March 2020, the Supreme Court suspended Municipal Court sessions along with other high-volume events that involve large numbers of people in a confined physical space. Recognizing that the COVID-19 pandemic would continue to affect court operations, all stakeholders worked together to implement virtual services.
The Supreme Court in May 2020 announced the resumption of Municipal Court services in a primarily virtual format. From June through December 2020, more than 1.3 million defendants were scheduled for virtual hearings in Municipal Courts throughout New Jersey.
The Supreme Court’s April 20, 2020 Order provides that court events generally will be conducted remotely, including most Municipal matters. However, certain especially serious matters – including sentencing hearings and evidentiary hearings and trials in Municipal matters that involve a reasonable likelihood of a jail sentence or loss or suspension of license – can be conducted remotely only with the consent of all parties.
This “remote first” approach in Municipal will continue, especially over the coming months as the New Jersey Department of Health works to vaccinate 4.7 million people. Adherence to health and safety protocols will remain critically important.
At the same time, the Judiciary has implemented a number of key reforms to enable parties to resolve minor municipal matters without appearing (even virtually) in court. In one of the first steps, the Supreme Court’s March 16, 2020 Order relaxed the Rules of Court so as to eliminate the hardship requirement for pleas by mail. Rather than coming to a court facility, court users can complete and submit the plea by mail form.
- Health and Safety Precautions
The Judiciary remains committed to supporting the health and safety of all individuals who seek on-site court services and participate in in-person court events. This public PowerPoint illustrates modifications in courtrooms to support social distancing and minimize the risks of transmission of COVID-19. Earlier notices reinforce the Judiciary’s commitment to following public health recommendations and providing notice to affected individuals if there is a potential COVID-19 exposure in a court location.
As noted, the Supreme Court in its June 9, 2020 Order required that all occupants in Judiciary facilities wear face masks and maintain social distancing. This September 22, 2020 notice provided further clarification of the circumstances in which a judge may direct or permit individuals within a courtroom to remove or lower their mask.