Earlier today, the New York State Courts' Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York's Courts issued a report outlining plans for re-starting in-person court appearances throughout the state.  The report, which is titled Goals and Checklist for Restarting In-Person Grand Juries, Jury Trials and Related Proceedings, includes concrete recommendations from the Commission for how courts can attempt to balance the need to ensure health and safety for all courthouse visitors and personnel during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, while also resuming these critical in-person proceedings.

At the outset, the report recommends that "[e]ach court should generate its own plan, based on local conditions, that prioritizes health and safety when restarting in-person grand juries, jury trials and related proceedings."  The report also suggests the following "general goals" to keep in mind:

  • Health and safety of all visitors and staff;
  • Clear and up-to-date communications to all interested parties;
  • Limit courthouse occupancy and interaction among those present; 
  • Dedicate exclusive space for jury trials and jury assembly/deliberations; 
  • Limit courtroom use and the need for interaction in the courtroom; and 
  • Strict adherence to all legal and constitutional requirements.

The report also includes several pages of concrete recommendations for how to re-start grand juries, jury trials, and related proceedings.  The recommendations cover (among other things): the procedures for re-starting and prioritizing certain types of trials, managing courtroom access, communicating with jurors, managing jury reporting and jury selection, and trial procedures.  For example, the report recommends that the courts "[i]nform prospective jurors of the steps the Court is taking to ensure their safety and how the process will work to address health concerns and provide them with the opportunity raise any specific issues (for example, whether they believe they are in a high-risk category for COVID-19 infection)."  In addition, the report recommends that courts identify alternative spaces for jurors to deliberate that provide sufficient distancing and, where that is not possible, courts should "consider leaving jurors in the courtroom, locked for deliberations, rather than using the jury room." 

With respect to conducting trials, the report recommended (among other things) that courts adopt a protocol for the presentation of evidence that:

  • Requires the parties to disclose their witness lists to the Court as early as possible and adhere to an agreed schedule. Avoid delays in calling scheduled witness in order to minimize time in the courthouse and the possibility of contact with other witnesses; 
  • Encourages stipulations on facts and evidentiary issues (e.g., foundation objections) to reduce the need for witnesses; and
  • Considers use of video testimony, where necessary/feasible and constitutionally permissible.

As we previously reported, the New York court system has gradually started to return to in-person operations, with grand juries beginning to convene outside of New York City and the first jury trial within New York City resuming last week.  The Commission's report will provide guidance for the courts as they attempt to create policies and procedures that will allow for in-person operations with increasing frequency.  However, it is also likely that the courts will need to be ready to alter these procedures as conditions continue to change.

For more information, and the latest updates, be sure to monitor our COVID-19 Resources Page for New York Lawyers.