Civil Jury Trials to Re-Commence on September 8th as Part of Phase IV.I Court Reopening Plan

By: Christopher A. Powers, Megan K. Thomas

On August 10, 2020, New York’s Fifth Judicial District, which includes Onondaga, Oneida, Oswego, Jefferson, Lewis and Herkimer Counties, entered Phase IV.I of its reopening following the emergency closure caused in March 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of Phase IV.I, civil jury trials are scheduled to restart on a limited basis beginning September 8th. Grand juries have been open for about a month with no major issues, and courts in Onondaga and Oneida Counties have been authorized to resume civil jury trials.

The civil jury trial schedule will be determined by the judges on a case-by-case basis. Courtrooms are being limited to ½ the listed occupancy or 25 people, and all occupants must remain 6 feet apart whenever possible. To accommodate these rules, two courtrooms will be available for each trial. At least one week before the start date of a trial, the judge will hold a pre-trial conference with counsel to discuss the physical layout of the courtroom.

Jurors will be prescreened for COVID-19 and asked whether they suffer from a comorbidity that would put them at a higher risk. After the prescreening process, a pre-trial conference with counsel will be held to review and determine service exemptions. Reasons for exemption that must be considered include: childcare issues; care of a COVID-19 vulnerable person; looking for work due to a recent loss of employment; or a recent return to work. Special consideration will be given to assure a diverse and representative panel. To facilitate social distancing, jurors will be separated into small groups, with one group coming into the jury/courtroom for voir dire at staggered times.

Once the trial begins, jurors will be seated so as to maintain social distancing, which may involve seating jurors throughout the Courtroom in designated seats. Masks must be worn at all times by everyone present in the courtroom, unless the judge directs otherwise, and clear face shields will also be available to jurors and witnesses. Attorneys may also use face shields if given permission by the judge to do so. The witness chair will be cleaned between witnesses. Attorneys will be allowed to use phones or other devices, to communicate with clients while maintaining distance. Floor signage will restrict and direct movement in the courtroom. Counsel may not approach the witness, opposing counsel, or the court at any closer than 6 feet. Disposable gloves will be available for anyone asked to physically handle an exhibit.

If the courtroom does not have sufficient space for spectators, they will be provided the opportunity to watch the proceedings remotely in another room. Witnesses may appear through video streaming if permissible. At the end of each day, the Courtroom will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.

Perhaps most importantly, if, at any time during the trial, a juror or other trial participant who has had contact with jurors experiences symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or is directly exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19, the judge will immediately cease trial proceedings for at least 14 days and consult with counsel to determine whether the trial may resume after the quarantine period or a mistrial shall be declared.

In addition to the new rules for civil jury trials, a quick overview of some other pertinent measures is below.

No residential evictions shall be scheduled to take place prior to October 1, 2020.

No default judgments will be granted, unless the default occurred before March 16, 2020.

Temporary orders of protection shall be extended under the same terms until modified by a judge.

Virtual calendars are being encouraged in Family and Surrogate’s Court.

The following matters shall be presumptively held in person:

  •  Supreme Court – civil trials, evidentiary hearings and inquests, all appearances and conferences where at least one party is pro se;
  • Family Court – all evidentiary hearings, child support proceedings, permanency hearings, Article 10 consents, admissions and surrenders
  • Surrogates’ Court – citations and show cause orders, bench trials, evidentiary hearings, and all appearances where at least on party is pro se;
  • City Court – civil bench trials, evidentiary hearings, and small claims matters; and
  • Vehicle and Traffic proceedings for tickets issues before August 1, 2020.

The following matters shall be presumptively held virtually:

  • Supreme Court – all conferences and motion arguments where all parties are represented by counsel and Mental Hygiene Law Proceedings pertaining to a hospitalized adult;
  • Family Court – Conferences, juvenile delinquency proceedings, PINS, adoptions, appearance calendars;
  • Surrogates’ Court – Conferences and motion arguments where all parties are represented by counsel; and
  • City Court – Civil conferences and motion arguments.

If you have any questions about the above, please reach out to the Mackenzie Hughes attorney with whom you regularly work or Christopher Powers (cpowers@mackenziehughes.com) or Megan Thomas (mthomas@mackenziehughes.com).