NJ Courts Will Begin To Reopen With COVID Safety Measures

By Bill Wichert
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Law360 (June 10, 2020, 7:46 PM EDT) -- New Jersey judiciary officials on Wednesday said they will soon begin holding in-person proceedings at state courthouses after shuttering their doors nearly three months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but visitors will need to wear face masks in public areas and maintain social distancing.

The New Jersey Supreme Court signed off Tuesday on the second phase of the judiciary's post-pandemic plan, which starts June 22 and will allow for certain in-person events while other matters continue to be handled remotely. New jury trials will remain prohibited.

"As determined by the Supreme Court, court events that cannot be handled remotely (e.g., based on lack of consent to proceed remotely or Judiciary determination that it should be in person) may be conducted onsite," officials said in a Wednesday report on those measures.

In the upcoming phase, 10% to 15% of judges and staff will be on-site, officials said. During the first phase, which started March 18, less than 5% of judges and staff have been on-site and court buildings have been closed to attorneys and the public, officials said.

For civil and criminal matters, on-site proceedings in the second phase may include bench trials and hearings in matters that are "especially complex," meaning "at a minimum, involving numerous parties or witnesses, or significant evidence in a format that cannot be handled remotely, such as physical evidence or videos in a nonstandard format," officials said.

Suspended civil and criminal jury trials also may be completed in person with the consent of the lawyers and parties and approval by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, officials said. Sentencings and guilty pleas in criminal matters also may take place at courthouses, officials said.

But litigants, judges, staff members and other people visiting courthouses and court facilities for judiciary business will have to stay six feet apart and wear a face covering or mask in nonprivate areas, according to a Supreme Court order issued Tuesday.

Those areas include courtrooms, hallways, elevators and when people enter and leave courthouses and court offices, the order says.

At courthouses and court facilities, judges and staffers may remove their face coverings or masks "while they are in a cubicle or private office, so long as social distancing guidelines are maintained," the order states.

"Judges also may use discretion in removing their face coverings or masks when on the bench, and directing others to do so, so long as social distancing guidelines are maintained," according to the order.

Such provisions will be adjusted to accommodate individuals in certain cases, such as when they shouldn't wear a face covering or mask for medical reasons, the order states.

Among other safety-related measures, "barriers, shields and/or sneeze guards" will be set up in appropriate spots, hygiene stations will be installed and "thermal scanning may be implemented," officials said in Wednesday's report.

All judiciary employees will have to undergo orientation/training "with an emphasis on COVID-19 safety" before returning to court buildings, officials said. COVID-19 cleaning policies also will be implemented, officials said.

During the second phase, however, most civil and criminal proceedings will continue to be handled via video or telephone, officials said. Those events include motion hearings and case management and other conferences for civil cases as well as hearings on pretrial detention motions in criminal cases, officials said.

Arguments before the Supreme Court and the state Appellate Division and most Tax Court proceedings also are expected to continue to occur remotely, officials said.

Officials further noted that "we are monitoring and will adjust our reopening plans based on county-level dynamics, including potential future COVID-19 flare-ups in any area."

"On a county basis, onsite presence may revert to Phase 1 if any preconditions change (e.g., COVID-19 trends worsen in the area)," officials said.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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