NJ Halts Jury Trials As COVID-19 Surges Again

By Justin Wise
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Law360 (November 16, 2020, 8:16 PM EST) -- The New Jersey Supreme Court on Monday reinstalled a suspension of jury trials and in-person grand jury sessions, as the state experiences a pronounced jump in confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

"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," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in an order.

The decision was issued the same day that Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, implemented new restrictions limiting the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings in light of the uptick in COVID-19 infections. Murphy said on Twitter that the state recorded its highest daily counts of COVID-19 cases on Saturday and Sunday.

His office also shared a graphic showing a sustained surge in hospitalizations in recent weeks. As of Sunday, 2,115 patients were in a state hospital because of the virus.

"This will not be a normal Thanksgiving," Murphy said.

The court's decision applies to criminal and civil jury trials across the state system, which resumed in a socially distanced format in September after being postponed indefinitely in March. The one jury trial that was still in progress as of Monday will be allowed to continue, the court said in a news release.

As of September, the court said it conducted roughly a dozen jury trials, leading to resolutions in about 115 criminal cases and settlements in more than 225 civil cases.

In-person grand jury sessions will be allowed to move to a remote format. Virtual grand jury sessions that were already established can continue to meet as well, according to the order. The court said it has already established virtual grand juries in all 21 counties. Judges have also conducted more than 100,000 remote court hearings since the start of the pandemic, the court's news release said.

Justice Rabner added in Monday's order that any future decisions on court proceedings would be influenced by advice from public health experts.

As New Jersey saw its daily virus case counts fall in the summer, judicial officials introduced a plan to continue in-person courtroom operations. Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of New Jersey's courts, said at the time that the pause in trials was causing a significant backlog for civil and criminal defendants.

For example, more than 2,000 of the 4,700 criminal defendants in county jails had yet to be indicted as of July, Grant said. It is unclear how many criminal and civil defendants are still awaiting trial.

The court said Monday that fewer in-person trials are normally conducted in November and December when compared to the rest of the year.

The state Supreme Court did not immediately return a request for further comment.

Court officials in New York, which is also seeing a sustained uptick in COVID-19 cases, are taking a similar approach. On Friday, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks issued a guidance stating that new criminal and civil trials would be postponed. Trials already proceeding are expected to continue.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana has also suspended in-person jury trials and naturalization ceremonies until at least Jan. 25.

"The effects of COVID-19 may be significantly mitigated by temporarily modifying court operations," Chief Judge Jane E. Magnus-Stinson said in a Friday order.

--Additional reporting by Kevin Penton and Jeannie O'Sullivan. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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

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