Jury Trials Resume, Large Backlog in Family & Housing Courts
Good afternoon Members,
During her weekly coronavirus update, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said civil and criminal jury trials restarted statewide today after being put on hold in November due to the resurgence of COVID-19.
In New York City, 26 jury trials began – 19 civil and seven criminal – spanning all five counties. And outside New York City, the state court system scheduled a total of 27 trials – 18 criminal and 9 civil – that began today across all judicial districts statewide.
DiFiore said each jury trial will move forward pursuant to a plan that has been specifically tailored to the conditions present in the courthouse where that case is scheduled to be heard. Also, she said the top priority in each of the plans is “the creation and maintenance of a safe environment that instills confidence in jurors, staff, lawyers, witnesses and all other court users.” She said that includes disciplined adherence to established protocols like COVID-19 screening, social distancing, strict cleaning regimens and disciplined use of personal protective equipment.
DiFiore also noted that administrative judges have been working diligently to make sure that there are back-up cases ready in case any of the other scheduled trials settle or plea bargain. The aim is to avoid downtime in the trial parts and make sure they are not wasting the valuable time of prospective jurors who have reported to the courthouses for service. Also, she said they have made it a point to prioritize criminal trials involving defendants who are detained pretrial awaiting their day in court.
As the court system did in the fall when trials briefly resumed, they will interview jurors and attorneys at the conclusion of each trial in order to get their feedback and suggestions on how they can further improve safety protocols and the efficiency of the jury trial operations.
“The right to a trial by jury is one of the keystones of our justice system, and so we are pleased to see that all of the participants in the system are moving forward once more to resume jury trials across the state, and we remain hopeful that this time there will be no pauses or postponements,” said DiFiore. “So, let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
DiFiore acknowledged today that some of their courts, especially the Family and Housing Courts, are facing a significant backlog brought on by the pandemic. In addition to the existing backlogs, she said they are also expecting large increases in new filings when the existing moratoria on evictions are lifted, as well as in response to reported increases in family violence, neglect and abuse of children, child support, custody and visitation issues due to the economic hardships and social restrictions caused by the pandemic.
“We are taking a hard look at all responsible options at our disposal, and we are working to ensure that we provide these critically important courts with the resources they need to meet the increased demand for their services,” said DiFiore. “This is a challenge, and our work in meeting this challenge will require all of us to be proactive and flexible in coming up with responsive solutions, from reconfiguring our operations and transferring cases to take advantage of available capacity to reallocating existing resources and staff to meet the needs where they are most urgent.”
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