On November 13, 2020, New York’s Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks issued an order which suspended all new jury trials in New York State. This order went into effect the week of November 16, 2020. Any trials which were underway, as well as impaneled grand juries, would be permitted to continue.
Judge Marks’ order represents a significant, if unsurprising, shift for courts in New York. Just four days earlier, on November 9, 2020, New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore provided an update on the status of New York’s jury trials. Four criminal trials which started at the end of October had been tried to verdict. Another two criminal trials began the first week of November and were ongoing at the time of her statement. Although one of these trials had to be temporarily paused due to positive COVID-19 cases among court employees, the other was continuing safely. Civil cases were moving forward as well. In New York City, eight civil jury trials reached verdicts in the second half of October. Overall, 36 criminal and civil jury trials were conducted across New York State with 16 in progress. The resumption of jury trials in a state which had been hit hard and early by COVID-19 was an impressive feat. In her statement, Judge DiFiore lauded the work of all involved and highlighted the safety measures which made these trials possible (temperature checks, PPE, social distancing, Plexiglas, etc.). However, Judge DiFiore also noted that it may become necessary to scale back or suspend in person trials in light of the current wave of COVID-19 cases. Obviously, this has come to pass.
Here in New Jersey, we are also in the midst of a devastating new wave of COVID-19 cases with Governor Murphy reporting 4,540 new positive cases on Sunday, November 15, 2020. New York has been ahead of New Jersey in the resumption of in person proceedings with far more trials taking place throughout that state. Nonetheless, they have been forced to shut these trials down due to the serious concerns of the COVID-19 second wave. On November 16, 2020, the Supreme Court of New Jersey followed suit and suspended in person jury trials and grand jury sessions. At the time of this order, only one socially distanced New Jersey trial was ongoing and will continue. Two other trials have ongoing jury selection which will also continue, but will not proceed further at this time. However, other than these three examples, no other jury trials will commence in New Jersey (although some smaller in person court events may still be held).
These suspensions in both New York and New Jersey represent a huge, albeit necessary, setback in the safe resumption of jury trials in both states. It is increasingly apparent that attorneys and litigants will not have access to juries until at least 2021, if not until a vaccine is widely available. The judiciary is exploring the possibility of virtual trials. However, this is a poor substitution for in person proceedings. Nonetheless, litigants eager to have their day in court sooner may be forced to forgo the traditional in person jury trial for a while longer.