NJ Federal Jury Trials To Resume Amid COVID Progress

By Bill Wichert
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Law360 (May 19, 2021, 7:44 PM EDT) -- New Jersey's top federal judge on Wednesday ordered criminal and civil jury trials in the district to resume in the coming months as the Garden State continues to make inroads in the battle against COVID-19.

Chief U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson said criminal jury selections and trials will resume June 1, followed by civil jury selections and trials Sept. 1. Criminal trials will take priority over civil ones "in the event of a logistics conflict," and only one civil trial at a time will be permitted in each of the district's courthouses, Judge Wolfson said.

The judge said in her order that "this court seeks to continue its mitigation of the spread of COVID-19 by minimizing contact between persons, while at the same time, preserving its core mission of serving the public through the fair and impartial administration of justice."

The directive amended an order issued by the judge March 11, in which she continued all civil and criminal jury selections and trials to June 1.

The changes were needed "in order to further public health and safety, the health and safety of court personnel, counsel, litigants, other case participants, jurors, security personnel and the general public, and in order to reduce the number of gatherings necessarily attendant to civil jury trials in all vicinages of this court," Judge Wolfson said in Wednesday's order.

The order was issued the same day Gov. Phil Murphy eased a series of pandemic-related restrictions in a state where the crisis has led to more than 880,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 23,000 deaths. Among the changes that took effect Wednesday, businesses will no longer be subject to percentage-based capacity limits.

In another turning point for the Garden State, state judiciary officials plan to begin holding grand jury sessions and certain criminal and civil jury trials in person on or after June 15.

The loosening of COVID-19 restrictions and the resumption of federal and state jury trials follow a downward trend in the number of cases as more New Jerseyans have become vaccinated.

But Judge Wolfson said in Wednesday's order that "the COVID-19 vaccination rate in New Jersey, of adults eligible to serve as jurors is currently still low, and therefore, of concern, with many towns in the state having fewer than 40% of their residents vaccinated."

As of Friday, "the percentages of fully vaccinated adults in this court's vicinages" was "slight, with Camden at 28%, Newark at 34% and Trenton at 25%," the judge said.

The judge also pointed out that, despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's revised guidelines that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks in certain settings, New Jersey was still requiring mask-wearing in indoor public spaces.

In making that announcement, Murphy on Monday pointed to the residents who have not been vaccinated and how the effectiveness of the vaccines against several COVID-19 variants remains unclear, the judge said. The governor then said schools will have to provide full-time, in-person classes starting in the fall, the judge said.

Therefore, "this court anticipates that by September 1, 2021, the representative nature of the pool of summoned jurors will have improved, due to the increased availability of parents of school-age children to serve as jurors, and to an elevation in vaccination rates by that time," Judge Wolfson said.

--Editing by Kelly Duncan.

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

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