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Grand juries return to New York City’s courts for first time since pandemic

August 11, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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In her weekly address to the legal community, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore praised the return of grand juries for in-person duty within the New York City court system, a first on Monday since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March.

Chief Judge DiFiore said that the city court system summoned more than 8,000 jurors for appearances on Monday with the goal of empaneling 14 grand juries citywide.

“We have been thoughtfully and carefully preparing for this day, under the direction of Deputy Chief Administrative Judge George Silver — and in coordination with the District Attorneys and defense bar, as well as with the guidance of our own epidemiologist — retrofitting courtrooms and adjusting operations, among other measures, to ensure the safety of grand jury operations throughout the City,” Chief Judge DiFiore said.

Many attorneys and judges were skeptical that jurors would actually show up to court, but court employees in Brooklyn confirmed to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that over 100 jurors did show up and that the Supreme Court was able to empanel a grand jury.

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The plan is for more jurors to show up on Tuesday and eventually to have three grand juries in operation.

“It went very smoothly — social distancing observed online and in the courtroom, temperatures taken at two stations and court and County Clerk personnel worked together to make it as easy for the jurors as possible,” said Justice Matthew D’Emic, administrative judge of the Supreme Court, Criminal Term. “Commissioner Nancy Sunshine thanked them for their commitment to justice as did I.”

Chief Judge DiFiore said that outside of New York City, courts have already been successful at empaneling 66 grand juries.

“Building on the lessons learned throughout this process, plans are already in motion, in coordination with our justice partners, for the summoning and selection of jurors to serve on civil and criminal jury trials outside New York City,” DiFiore said.

In-person bench trials are expected to resume in the Brooklyn Housing Court by mid-September. Judges in that court, who are working out of the Supreme Court located at 320 Jay St. rather than at the Civil Court located at 141 Livingston St., have already begun in-person hearings and are calendaring cases.

Chief Judge DiFiore explained that the court is attempting to follow guidelines that were recently issued by the NYSBA’s Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York’s Courts, which is being led by Hank Greenberg, the immediate past president of the NYSBA. That group released a report with recommendations for creating customized court plans that prioritize public health and safety and suggests ways the court can safely provide access to the courts and safety for jurors.

The group is not merely identifying safe practices for a return, but is looking for ways in which it can help the court system use technology as much as possible moving forward.

“Technology has played an important and integral role for us, allowing us to move our cases forward while, at the same time, limiting courthouse traffic and mitigating the spread of COVID,” Chief Judge DiFiore said. “So, as we creatively explore the many ways in which technology and virtual operations can, appropriately, become a permanent part of our operation, we are equally excited about the prospect of a new, and even more productive, normal.”

While there has been some resistance to returning to in-person operations, primarily from the Legal Aid Society and other legal service providers who have filed a lawsuit against the Office of Court Administration, others were looking forward to restarting grand juries and eventually in-person trials.

“I have a client who has been sitting in Rikers Island for over five months,” said defense attorney Jay Schwitzman. “Am I afraid of getting COVID? Yeah, it’s out there, but I have to work. I am protecting myself and there is no reason that the court can’t safely reopen the way other things have done.”

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