The New Jersey Supreme Court and the Acting Administrative Director of New Jersey Courts have announced that starting in September, jury trials will resume incrementally, with certain courts using a combination of remote and in-person jury selection, and live courtroom trials practicing strict social distancing. Both criminal and civil trials have been suspended in New Jersey since mid-March due to the COVID-19 health crisis. Until now, there has been no clear understanding of when or how jury trials would return to anything resembling “normal” operation. The Court’s announcement signals an understanding that the criminal and civil backlog – and increasing number of criminal defendants awaiting trial while held on remand – cannot continue indefinitely.
This phased resumption of jury trials will begin with criminal matters involving a single detained defendant in three pilot Vicinages: Atlantic/Cape May, Bergen, and Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem. The hope is that in “the coming months, criminal trials will gradually resume in all counties, and will expand to include civil cases,” said Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts.
In order to minimize the risks associated with COVID-19, the jury trial process will be augmented to comply with public health guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the New Jersey Department of Health (NJ DOH). In general, trial activity within each courthouse will be substantially less than during pre-COVID-19 operations, with added attention to social distancing and occupancy protocols.
To address the challenges associated with traditionally large groupings of prospective jurors, the process of voir dire, or jury selection – arguably one of the most significant aspects of a jury trial – will initially be conducted by the trial judge in a virtual setting within the presence of the attorneys and parties. After virtual questioning and for-cause excusals, a small group of jurors will be directed to report to the courthouse for the in-person phase of selection including the exercise of peremptory challenges. This in-person phase of jury selection will be conducted in strict compliance with social distancing requirements, as jurors and others will generally be required to wear masks.
Following the selection process, jurors will be empaneled for an in-person trial administered in accordance with the public health guidance provided by CDC and NJ DOH. During trials, empaneled jurors and trial participants will be required wear masks or face shields and strictly adhere to social distancing practices in order to prevent close contact.
With the Judiciary preparing to resume jury trials starting in September 2020, prospective jurors can expect to receive juror summonses in the mail starting this month.
Ansa Assuncao’s legal team is actively monitoring the New Jersey courts for developments and continuing guidance on the Judiciary’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For assistance, contact James Coons, [email protected], or David Gonzalez, [email protected], or call (732) 993 -9850.