How COVID-19 Affects Jury Trials in New Jersey
New Jersey courts have undertaken more than 23,000 virtual actions since courthouses were physically closed for COVID-19. However, none of these actions included jury trials since they are not allowed to be held virtually. Here is some more information about how COVID-19 has affected jury trials in New Jersey.
Indefinite Continuations of Trials
The immediate effect of COVID-19 on jury trials is that they have been continued indefinitely. “Continued” means the same thing as suspended. Originally, jury trials that had already begun were allowed to continue. However, the stay-at-home order was issued not too long after the court system was closed. Other trials that were scheduled have also been postponed.
As of this writing, trials in New Jerseys have been postponed through at least May 31. However, courts have been extending these postponements each month when they issue new guidance for the circuit or district. The federal courts in New Jersey are closed through at least June 1.
It is unconstitutional for criminal jury trials to be held remotely or through videoconferencing. The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution contains something that is called the Confrontation Clause. As applicable here, the accused needs to be able to confront the witnesses that are testifying against them. This does not mean that the defendant has a right to a physical or verbal altercation. What is does mean is that they are guaranteed the right to be able to see the witnesses in person at a trial. This is not possible over Zoom or a teleconference. Thus, criminal jury trials are suspended at this point.
The same holds true for civil jury trials. Courthouses are physically closed right now. It is simply not possible to gather a large number of people in a courthouse that a jury trial requires. In fact, many states are restricting any type of gatherings right now to 10 people or less. For a criminal trial, 12 jurors are necessary, so that alone makes criminal jury trials off-limits right now.
Social Distancing Is Challenging for Juries
Even when court trials resume, the physical dynamics of the jury will present some challenges for juries. We have all seen court trials on television to observe how close to each other jurors sit during a case. Even when court hearings begin again, that type of physical proximity will still be difficult. Jurors will need to socially distance for quite some time, perhaps until there is a COVID-19 vaccine.
This will make courthouse logistics that much more challenging for the court system. In many courts, the dock where the jury sits is barely large enough to hold the empaneled jurors. It will be difficult to figure out the spacing so that jurors can socially distance. Having to address a spread-out jury will be a challenge for all attorneys in the case. Moreover, the need to socially distance will make it tougher for jurors to deliberate. Courts will need to find a larger space so jurors are not confined together in one room for an extended period of time.
The physical challenges of seating a jury may present even more delays once the court system reopens. It may be some time before it is entirely safe for juries to sit together. What makes it even tougher is that seating the jury is just the last step in the process. Before you even reach that point, scores of potential jurors must file into the courthouse to be questioned for jury duty. Courts may hesitate to let that many people into one building from the outside for an extended period of time even after the pandemic wanes.
Another factor that will continue to impact jury trials is the fact that jurors, witnesses and other trial participants may need to travel a long way for their time in court. Many people do not feel comfortable traveling long distances right now. Most will not automatically feel safer once courthouses reopen. Instead, people will continue to be afraid.
Some jurors end up sequestered during their trials and have to stay in a hotel. However, the fear of improper sanitation may keep people from wanting to stay overnight anywhere away from their homes. In addition, they may not desire to get on an airplane or even travel to another state until some time has passed from the peak outbreak.
Other Logistical Hurdles
There are other logistical hurdles that can cause delays in cases. Even after courts begin to have trials, not every school in the state will have reopened. Summer camps are closed. Parents will be stuck without child care. That will make service on a jury impossible because parents could have nobody to watch their children.
Moreover, the jury pool may be further limited by the fact that many people will have valid excuses from jury duty. Those with preexisting conditions or who are otherwise vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 will not be required to show up at the courthouse. There may be challenges seating a jury because the pool is so limited.
If your trial has already begun and was underway when jury trials were suspended, there are alternate jurors who can step in if one or more jurors had to leave the case. If jurors are sickened and cannot return to the case, there will not be a mistrial unless the entire alternate juror pool is exhausted.
Where Do Cases Stand Now?
The question many are asking is where the court closures and jury trial suspension leave cases that are in the criminal justice system. While many are saying that courthouses are closed, that only extends to physical proceedings in the courthouse. Courts are still figuratively open during this time, and judges are still working. If you have a case that requires a jury, you may even be able to have some type of remote proceeding, albeit one that does not require a jury to be seated. This could include evidentiary motions in front of the judge or any other part of a case that a judge needs to decide.
In addition, judges can still assign deadlines in a case. They are working remotely, reviewing motions and managing their cases. They can require attorneys to brief matters, and they may still issue rulings in a case, even if there is no prospect of a jury trial anytime soon. Just because the jury cannot hear the case does not mean that the case does not proceed. In fact, the jury trial is the very end of the case. Pre-trial motions and issues can take many months to work through before the trial is even held.
In terms of rescheduled trial dates, when your case will actually be heard is anyone’s guess at this point. Judges have very crowded dockets under the best of circumstances, and nearly every judge will be well behind on their trial schedules. How they prioritize cases when courts reopen is up to the individual judge. However, you can expect that your case will likely not be heard right after the courts reopen for trials.
In addition, given the backlog, judges may allot less time for each trial since they must catch up on their dockets. You can expect that it will take some time for the judicial system to return to normal after being closed for three months or more. Your Morristown criminal defense attorney may even need to file a motion regarding how delays are impacting the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.
To learn more about COVID-19’s impact on the justice system in New Jersey, call Gregg A. Wisotsky, Esq., a Morristown criminal defense attorney, at (973) 898-0161. We are working and helping clients during COVID-19.