In The Courts Recent News

Supreme Court Order Authorizes Remote Civil Jury Trials

Civil jury trials will return in a virtual format on a limited and temporary basis, under a Supreme Court order issued on January 7, 2021.

The Court’s order directs virtual civil trials to begin on or after Feb. 1 in eight of New Jersey’s 21 counties.

Initial trials will require consent of both parties and will involve straightforward, single-witness cases that can be completed within a few weeks.

Virtual jury trials will expand statewide on or after April 5, with consent from the parties no longer required because of the expected length of the continued health threat posed by COVID-19.

Civil trials have been delayed in New Jersey since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, leaving countless civil litigants unable to resolve important disputes.

The order, signed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, states: “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Judiciary has been committed to provide a forum for the fair adjudication of disputes and to safeguard public health.

The pandemic required the court system to consider new ways to respond to the needs of the public and administer justice. The Supreme Court’s response has included temporarily authorizing virtual formats for various court events that cannot safely be conducted in person at this time.”

The order acts on a report issued in November by the Judiciary’s Post-Pandemic Planning Committee on Resuming Jury Trials, which sought advance input from the New Jersey State Bar Association, the New Jersey Association for Justice, the New Jersey Defense Association, the state Department of Law and Public Safety, and other stakeholders.

The Court received and considered 45 public comments in response to the Committee’s proposal and incorporated some of those suggestions into its order.

The order establishes two phases for the resumption of jury trials in all civil case types.

In the first phase, civil jury trials will be conducted remotely in the vicinages of Atlantic/Cape May, Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem, Monmouth, Passaic, and Union.

To the extent possible, virtual civil jury trials will begin with cases involving a single plaintiff, a single defendant, a limited number of issues in dispute, and a modest number of live witnesses.

Consent to proceed in a virtual format may be withdrawn no later than the 10th day before jury selection in a given matter.

The second phase, expanding virtual civil jury trials statewide, will continue for as long as necessary based on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order establishes standards for how trials should be conducted.

Pretrial conferences will address whether the judge, attorneys, and parties will be present in a courtroom or whether any or all of them will participate remotely.

It also will address methods for presenting evidence.

Jurors will participate remotely during trial.

An accompanying directive issued by Administrative Director Glenn A. Grant provides additional guidance on electronic evidence.

To minimize public health risks, jurors also will not be brought into the courthouse for the in-person phase of selection.

Judges will be encouraged to be more permissive in allowing attorneys to participate during virtual voir dire.

Additional alternate jurors also will be chosen – beyond the number ordinarily selected for a jury trial conducted in person.

The Judiciary will provide standard technology and technical assistance, as needed, to jurors summoned for the selection process and to all empaneled jurors.

The Court may modify the protocols for conducting virtual civil jury trials based on updated public health recommendations, including recommended changes in occupancy limits for indoor gatherings.

Health-related factors will be considered in scheduling cases for trial dates.

Cases involving healthcare professionals who are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic will not proceed.

Jurors who supply a doctor’s note substantiating that they are unable to serve based on an ongoing medical condition will be excused before reporting for virtual selection, just as they were pre-pandemic.

Public access to the first virtual civil jury trials will be provided by live broadcast without showing images of jurors. Access to later trials will be provided through Zoom invitations or other means.

Since March 16, 2020, judges at all levels of the New Jersey courts have conducted more than 120,000 remote court events involving more than 1.45 million participants.

During the same period, attorneys have developed expertise in participating in virtual proceedings.

In addition, with training and support from the Judiciary, more than 500 New Jersey residents have served as jurors in hybrid trials and virtual grand jury panels, using their own technology or technology provided by the courts.

In The Courts Recent News

New Jersey Supreme Court Order Suspends Jury Trials Amid Second Wave of COVID-19 Pandemic

The Supreme Court issued an order today suspending criminal and civil jury trials and in-person grand jury sessions in response to a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Most court hearings have been held remotely since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in March. As COVID cases declined and the court put safety measures in place, limited in-person proceedings, including socially distanced jury trials and in-person grand jury sessions, were able to resume in September.

“The increasing rates of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths make it impracticable and unsafe for certain in-person court events to continue at the level reached during the past few months,” the Court wrote in an order signed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

The Court’s order extends the period of excludable time for prosecutors to bring cases to a grand jury by 45 days. In-person grand jury panels can switch to a virtual format, and existing virtual grand jury panels may continue to convene, under the order.

Virtual grand juries have been established in all 21 counties. The Judiciary has provided technology as necessary to enable participation by all qualified jurors.

Since the start of the pandemic, judges have conducted more than 100,000 remote court events involving more than 1.2 million participants.

The one in-person jury trial in progress will be allowed to continue. Fewer inperson trials are ordinarily held in late-November and December.

Since September, about a dozen jury trials have been conducted. The resumption of jury trials, though, resulted in the resolution of more than 115 criminal cases and settlements in more than 225 civil cases.

The Court said in its order that it will continue to be guided by experts in public health as it administers court operations in a manner that prioritizes the safety of court users.

In The Courts Recent News

Grand Juries to Resume Work Statewide

A Supreme Court Order issued on October 8, 2020 provides a plan for the statewide return of grand juries, ending a delay that has affected thousands of defendants held in custody since the start of the Covid-19 health crisis.

The order also allows defendants detained more than 90 days to promptly receive discovery material from prosecutors and it ends pre-indictment excludable time in phases, prioritizing those defendants who have been detained the longest. The first phase ends excludable time on Jan. 15 for cases involving nearly 600 defendants who were detained prior to March 16.

While prosecutors typically have 90 days to bring a case to a grand jury, certain delays stop the clock and qualify as “excludable time.”

Defendants have accrued more than 200 days of excludable time since in-person grand jury selections were suspended in March due to Covid-19.

There are currently more than 2,700 defendants in county jails whose
matters have not been brought to a grand jury.

“The number of unindicted detained defendants will continue to grow unless grand juries are established in all counties and enabled to perform their critical function effectively, efficiently, and consistent with public health requirements,” the Court wrote in its order.

Jurors in all counties have now been summoned for new grand jury selections.

The Supreme Court’s order provides options for prosecutors to seek indictment through both virtual and in-person sessions.

Virtual grand juries have been operating in Mercer and Bergen counties since June.

Under the order, each county must equip new panels with the technology and training needed to convene in a virtual format by Dec. 1. Prosecutors may then choose to present cases before grand juries.

Alternatively, counties may convene in-person grand juries in Judiciary locations in a manner consistent with public health recommendations. As an additional option, county prosecutors may submit a proposal to conduct grand jury sessions in an outside facility if a Judiciary location is not available.

Also under the order, the Court is provisionally adopting a new rule, modeled after the federal court system, that allows for hearings that would afford eligible defendants the right to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence while requiring the state to demonstrate probable cause and present witness testimony. The hearings would not be held if an indictment is returned.

The plan protects the rights of the thousands of defendants who are detained and awaiting appearance before a grand jury and provides the state the opportunity to prepare and present cases. It also enables the criminal justice system to move forward in a way that protects the health of jurors, attorneys, witnesses and court staff.

In The Courts Recent News

New Jersey Courts Set to Resume Jury Trials

New Jersey courts are set to resume jury trials after being suspended for more than six months because of Covid-19, under a Supreme Court Order dated September 17, 2020.

The first trial is scheduled to begin in Bergen County on Monday, Sept. 21 with virtual jury selection before Superior Court Judge Robert Vinci. Jury selection will be conducted using a hybrid approach. Voir dire questioning will primarily take place in a virtual format, with technology provided by the Judiciary as needed.

Follow-up questioning and the exercise of peremptory challenges will be conducted in person.

The trial will be conducted in a socially distanced courtroom.

“The decision to resume a limited number of jury trials is motivated by the ongoing restrictions of the rights of criminal defendants, including more than 2,500 defendants who have been indicted and are detained in jail awaiting trial, as well as the rights of victims of crime seeking access to the courts to complete a critical step in their recovery,” said the court in an Order signed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. “In addition, the extended delay in the administration of civil justice, including more than 9,000 cases awaiting trial today, also compels the resumption of jury trials.”

More than 200 potential jurors will be questioned virtually over the first several days.

A smaller group of prospective jurors will appear at the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack on Monday, Sept. 28. New Jersey’s first socially distant, in-person jury trial is expected to begin that same week.

The preparation to return to jury trials already has resulted in the settlement of 10 criminal cases in Bergen County.

“Jury trials are the catalyst for resolving cases, both in criminal and civil matters. The availability of a judge and jury ready to hear a case prompts pleas in criminal matters and settlements in civil cases. In contrast, the unavailability of jury trials removes the impetus for case resolution and stalls the wheels of justice. Countless individuals are adversely affected as a result,” the Court said in its order.

Virtual jury selection is expected to start soon in Atlantic County the week of Sept. 28, Cumberland County the week of Oct. 5 and Mercer and Passaic counties the week of Oct. 19.

To the extent feasible, the first new jury trials will be straightforward criminal cases involving a single detained defendant.

The first several socially distanced inperson jury trials will be livestreamed to the public.

“For more than six months, the New Jersey courts have sustained court operations to the greatest extent possible without jury trials. During that time, public health authorities have confirmed that Covid-19 trends in New Jersey no longer require all residents to stay at home, and those same authorities have issued guidance for how businesses, schools, and other institutions including the courts can safely resume some level of in-person activity.

Guided by the public health experts and recognizing its duty to uphold the rule of law even when it is difficult to do so, the Court authorized the resumption of jury trials,” the Court said in its order.