The Show Must Go On: New Jersey State Bar Association Releases Report to Help NJ State Courts Resume Jury Trials Amidst Pandemic
As we head into the fifth month since the COVID-19 pandemic halted court operations, the New Jersey State Bar Association released a report and recommendations for the resumption of jury trials in the New Jersey courts. The report released in early July was created to help New Jersey courts restart jury trials in a way that will keep all participants healthy and safe, while accommodating and preserving essential constitutional protections.
Curtailed court proceedings due to COVID-19 have caused a 153% increase in backlogged cases in New Jersey statewide. The number of backlogged cases statewide in May 2020 represents a 153% increase over May 2019, according to data provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts. The courts counted 50,185 backlogged cases just this May. In the Special Civil Part, the overall number of backlogged cases rose 5,662% – from 316 in May 2019 to 18,210 this May. Auto negligence cases have also seen a jump in backlogs, from 19 statewide in May 2019 to 88 this May, an increase of 363%.
The NJSBA Pandemic Task Force Committee noted that certain potential changes should be off-limits, such as virtual jury trials. The report states, “A live, in-person jury is the cornerstone of our civil and criminal justice system,” and “we do not believe that virtual jury trials will satisfy constitutional mandates. That being said, we believe communication technology can be used to make the jury selection process safer, while conserving judicial resources.”
The proposal sets forth a structure that includes introductory virtual communications that are available to all potential jurors, while including essential in-person observation during the final phase of jury selection. The proposed plan includes:
- Jury duty notification and video introduction to the court system;
- Available screening of jurors by jury management;
- Preliminary voir dire via remote questionnaire; and,
- Final voir dire of jurors in person at the courthouse.
The recommendations are intended to be a starting point, and are designed to be flexible to accommodate the tide of changing events that continue to impact the courts. We look forward to receiving additional recommendations from the NJSBA going forward.
Thanks to Irving Fayman for his contribution to this post. Please contact Heather Aquino with any questions.