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Law360 (August 5, 2020, 10:39 PM EDT) -- As New York courts begin to resume trials during the coronavirus pandemic, a state commission issued a report Wednesday recommending that courts utilize bigger jury pools, check visitors' temperatures and consider livestreaming proceedings for spectators.
The Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York's Courts, created in June to look at how the state judiciary can use technology and online platforms to facilitate access to justice services, released the nine-page report advising courts on how they can safely facilitate grand juries and jury trials amid COVID-19.
The report emphasizes that each court should create its own plans, based on local conditions, that prioritizes the health and safety of court staff and visitors when reinstating in-person proceedings. The commission said courts should maintain clear protocol communications, limit the number of people in courthouses and dedicate exclusive space for juries, all while adhering to legal constitutional requirements.
"The recommendations outlined in today's report are an excellent starting point for New York's judges, court administrators and relevant stakeholders to consider as the court system works to safely re-establish in-person operations," Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who appointed the commission, said in a statement Wednesday. "I am pleased by the commission's efforts to date and look forward to its long-range proposals as we strive to deliver quality justice services to New Yorkers in today's rapidly evolving society."
In general, the commission recommended that courts require screenings, including temperature checks, for visitors and provide masks, hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment as recommended by health professionals. Procedures should also be established for cleaning courtrooms and jury spaces every night, according to the report.
High-risk individuals should not be required to appear in court, the commission said, nor should they be penalized for declining to participate in court proceedings.
Courts should use every possible communication medium — including the court's website, courtroom door signs, news releases and social media — to broadcast the message that health and safety is the court's priority and that steps have been taken to address risks, the commission said.
In terms of juries, the commission said courts should plan to call larger jury pools to account for more deferral requests and absentees, and should consider prescreening questions specific to COVID-19 or other common disqualifying issues to reduce the number of jurors required to come to the courthouse.
The commission said courts should also consider having jurors report later in the day, to avoid rush-hour commuting, and to potentially have jurors complete case-specific voir dire questionnaires remotely. Courts should also think about impaneling extra alternates or extending service for grand juries to reduce the need for new panels.
When conducting trials, the commission said courts should consider courthouse space and other available local facilities for trial and jury assembly and deliberations to make sure social distancing is possible.
Courts should think about conducting pretrial proceedings virtually, either by phone or video, the commission said, and allowing members of the media, family members of crime victims or litigants and other members of the public to observe trials remotely from a livestream.
Courts should also establish rules for lawyers that address the appropriate use of masks, procedures for sidebars and procedures for ensuring attorney-client communications where social distancing is required, according to the recommendations.
"I am deeply grateful to the commission for meeting the moment and producing in real time a report that will serve as a resource for trial courts and courthouses across the state," Commission Chair Henry Greenberg said in a statement Wednesday. "It is imperative that our criminal and civil justice systems be as operational as possible under the circumstances, and that grand jury proceedings and jury trials are conducted in a safe and secure manner."
--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.
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