NJ Justices OK Remote Civil Trials As Pandemic Continues

By Jeannie O'Sullivan
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Law360 (January 7, 2021, 7:42 PM EST) -- Amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the New Jersey Supreme Court on Thursday authorized virtual trials for some civil cases to begin Feb. 1 in eight of the state's 21 counties.

The Supreme Court's order comes during a second surge of cases in the Garden State and applies only to single-witness cases that can be completed within a few weeks, the judiciary said in an announcement. Cases involving health care professionals responding to the pandemic won't proceed for now.

The virtual format will require consent from both parties for the initial trials, but consent will no longer be required after the virtual format expands statewide on or after April 5, the judiciary said.

"Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the judiciary has been committed to provide a forum for the fair adjudication of disputes and to safeguard public health. The pandemic required the court system to consider new ways to respond to the needs of the public and administer justice," Chief New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Stuart J. Rabner said in a statement.

"The Supreme Court's response has included temporarily authorizing virtual formats for various court events that cannot safely be conducted in person at this time," the statement continued.

The announcement came the same day the state reported 6,134 new cases and 123 new lab-confirmed deaths from the coronavirus, marking a continuing rise in positive test results and casualties following a downsurge in the summer and into the fall of 2020.

Although the Supreme Court over the summer had allowed certain jury trials to resume on a hybrid basis combining remote and in-person elements, the justices halted them in November as cases and deaths began to climb once again to the same or higher levels reached shortly after the state's public emergency was declared in March.

Since March 16, more than 120,000 remote court proceedings have been conducted in all divisions of the New Jersey state court system, according to the judiciary.

Per the new plan announced Thursday, virtual jury trials in the initial phase will be held in the Atlantic/Cape May, Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem, Monmouth, Passaic and Union courthouses, the judiciary said. Parties will be allowed to withdraw their consent to proceed in the virtual format up to 10 days before jury selection.

The second phase, in which virtual jury trials will commence statewide, will continue as needed based on the pandemic, the judiciary said.

Jurors will participate remotely during trials and won't be brought to the courthouse for selection, and may be excused for medical reasons if a doctor's notice is provided, according to the judiciary. The judiciary said it will provide technology and technological assistance to aid in the jurors' remote participation.

Pretrial conferences will address if attorneys, litigants and judges will participate in person or remotely, the judiciary said.

Virtual jury protocols may be modified to reflect updated public health rules for things such as indoor occupancy limits, according to the judiciary. Public access will be provided via live broadcast without showing the jurors, the judiciary said.

The virtual trial plan reflects the recommendations of a November report by the judiciary's Post-Pandemic Planning Committee on Resuming Jury Trials, the judiciary said. The group sought input from stakeholders such as the New Jersey State Bar Association, the New Jersey Association for Justice, the New Jersey Defense Association and the state's Department of Law and Public Safety.

The order also implements some of the suggestions received in 45 public comments the judiciary received in response to the committee's proposal, according to the judiciary.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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

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