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Law360 (July 22, 2020, 9:37 PM EDT) -- New Jersey judiciary officials unveiled a plan Wednesday to resume jury trials in September under a hybrid system that will combine remote jury selection with in-person proceedings, saying "waiting is not an option" for litigants as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Jury summonses will be sent out this week or next and jury selection, conducted virtually, is expected to begin by mid-September, officials said during a news conference held via video service Zoom. Actual trials will be conducted in person, and criminal trials expected to last no more than two weeks will be first in the lineup, officials said.
Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of New Jersey's courts, said that while fewer than 2% of all cases go to trial, the process serves as a backbone of the justice system, and right now there's a backlog. Of the 4,700 defendants sitting in county jails, more than 2,000 have yet to be indicted, and civil litigants are also waiting, Judge Grant said.
"The work of the court must continue," he told reporters.
Civil and criminal jury trials in the state's 15 judicial districts, or vicinages, have been suspended until further notice since March, when Gov. Phil Murphy issued widespread stay-at-home orders in regard to nonessential businesses and activities. Wednesday's announcement comes as the coronavirus case and death tolls continue to wane in the Garden State, once the second-hardest-hit by the pandemic, while other states are experiencing surges.
More than 1.4 million jurors are summoned to the state's courthouses each year, making in-person jury selection an impossibility from a public health standpoint with the pandemic still underway, according to Judge Grant's special assistant, Jessica Lewis Kelly. She called the hybrid process a "temporary solution to unprecedented circumstances."
"Resuming jury trials is necessary and urgent. Waiting is not an option," Kelly said.
The first vicinages to roll out the plan will be the three that encompass Atlantic and Cape May counties; Bergen County; and Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, according to a notice posted after the conference.
According to Kelly's overview, jurors will undergo an enhanced screening process. Selection will be conducted via Zoom and prospective jurors who don't have a laptop, tablet or smartphone will be provided with equipment from the courts. Attorneys and parties may participate in the courtroom with the judge or can do so remotely.
The final phase of jury selection will be conducted in-person, with juror pools of no more than 30 at a time.
During trials, jurors will be seated 6 feet from each other and provided with hand sanitizer. The courts will enforce a face mask mandate and a capacity limit on elevators.
Despite what Kelly said are "severe space restrictions" plaguing some of the courthouses, deliberations will take place in bigger rooms than the traditional areas where jurors gather to consider testimony.
The plan is based on a report by the judiciary's post-pandemic planning committee, which considered nationwide best practices and models in other jurisdictions, officials said. A separate committee of judiciary stakeholders helped finalize the report, Kelly said.
Judiciary officials indicated they were emboldened by the results of a virtual grand jury pilot program, which as of July 9 had returned 33 indictments since its June 18 launch. The pilot program was rolled out in Bergen and Mercer counties.
All told, the judiciary has held about 50,000 virtual proceedings throughout the pandemic and spent roughly $750,000 on equipment to bridge the digital divide, officials said.
Grant said officials are discussing the potential need to expand jury pools to account for the possibility of a juror contracting the coronavirus.
--Editing by Aaron Pelc.
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