Virtual civil jury trials will be scheduled statewide in New Jersey starting April 5, 2021, with consent to proceed remotely not required as part of the state’s two-phase approach to virtual jury trials for all dockets and tracks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, New Jersey courts have conducted more than 120,000 remote court events involving more than 1,450,000 participants and more than 500 jurors in hybrid trials. However, numerous trials have been indefinitely delayed. In response, the Post-Pandemic Planning Committee on Resuming Jury Trials developed a proposal for virtual civil jury trials and sought input from various stakeholders, including the New Jersey State Bar Association, New Jersey Association for Justice, New Jersey Defense Association, and Division of Law in the Department of Law and Public Safety.
On January 7, 2021, after reviewing and considering 45 public comments on the proposal, the Supreme Court of New Jersey authorized a two-phase approach:
Starting February 1, 2021, civil cases began being scheduled for virtual jury trials with consent to proceed remotely required in the following vicinages: Atlantic/Cape May; Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem; Monmouth; Passaic; and Union.
Starting April 5, 2021, virtual civil jury trials will be scheduled statewide with consent to proceed remotely not required. This phase will continue until further order but only as long as necessitated by COVID-19.
Case and Jury Selection
Virtual civil jury trials will begin with cases involving a single plaintiff, a single defendant, a limited number of disputed issues and a limited number of live witnesses. More complex and lengthier cases will be scheduled only after a straightforward trial has been conducted in the specific county where the case is filed.
Jury selection will also be conducted virtually (no in-person phase), and model voir dire questions will be expanded, including at least two open-ended questions regarding (1) juror understanding of public health precautions and (2) juror capacity and commitment to participate in a virtual trial. The same process will be used to select alternates and deliberating jurors. Courts will provide standard technology and instructions to summoned and empaneled jurors during the selection process, unless jurors prefer to use their own personal technology. Jurors will be excused for cause and attorneys will exercise peremptory challenges during the virtual selection process.
Logistics and Support
A comprehensive pretrial conference will address various issues, including the live or remote participation of the judge, attorneys, parties and witnesses; methods of presenting evidence and witness testimony; the distribution of juror questionnaires; and a trial schedule designed to minimize Zoom fatigue and include a test run with all attorneys, parties, and witnesses.
Designated staff will oversee and monitor the virtual trial proceedings and notify the judge of any concerns with jurors (e.g., loss of connection or potential inappropriate conduct). A few early virtual trials will be broadcast live on the Judiciary’s website, excluding jurors’ faces and any evidence that contains private information. Mock jury trials will also be recorded and posted online as examples for viewing by attorneys, parties, and members of the public.
On January 14, 2021, Judge Viscomi of Middlesex County advised that she will be looking for single plaintiff/single defendant non-talc cases that are ready for trial at the beginning of Phase 2. Once potential cases have been identified, Judge Viscomi will reach out to the appropriate counsel to schedule a telephonic conference. The Court will ultimately return to living mesothelioma cases, expedited trial track for single cases and consolidated cases as soon as possible.