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Chief Judge DiFiore: We have an obligation to restore trial by jury

August 25, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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The court system is on the verge of restarting jury trials in New York State next month for the first time since March, a move that includes New York City, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said during her weekly address to the legal community on Monday.

Chief Judge DiFiore didn’t give an exact date for the expected return of jury trials, but another round of grand jury summonses has been sent out for the next term which starts Sept. 8.

“The right to a trial by jury is one of the pillars of our justice system, and we have an obligation to restore this fundamental right as soon as it is prudent and responsible to do so,” said Chief Judge DiFiore. “And we believe that we are at that point now in many areas of the state.

“We have worked tirelessly to retrofit our facilities and implement extensive safety measures in preparation for the return of jurors, and spent countless hours learning, and planning, for how we can safely conduct jury trials based on the specific conditions present in and around each courthouse,” she continued.

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The first petit jury summonses went out last week in the Fourth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Judicial Districts, as well as Suffolk County. Chief Judge DiFiore said that a limited number of civil and criminal trials have been scheduled in those courts on a pilot basis.

“We will proceed carefully, of course, closely monitoring all aspects of these trials in order to ensure compliance with health and safety protocols and refine our practices for safely selecting and seating jurors,” DiFiore said.

When New York City does resume jury trials it will also do so on a pilot basis with a phased-in approach.

Chief Judge DiFiore explained that the phased-in approach to restarting jury trials is not a return to the way the court ran in February and early March, and that the court will continue to limit foot traffic by using strategies like virtual operations and social distancing as much as possible.

“Foremost among these strategies is the expansion of e-filing, particularly to high-volume courts like the New York City Housing Court, and we have prioritized new procedures and protocols in that court for all of the obvious reasons, including the court’s history of heavy in-person filings,” Chief Judge DiFiore said.

“I’m pleased to report that as soon as Oct. 5, e-filing will be in place in the Housing Court citywide, when Queens and Staten Island come online.”

The court, with the guidance of Hon. George Silver, the deputy chief administrative judge for New York City, is also working to streamline pretrial litigation processes in civil matters to avoid in-person appearances.

Part of that includes finalizing a uniform citywide preliminary conference form in September that hopes to identify pre-trial issues that can be most easily resolved virtually.

“We are also managing the flow of people in our courthouses through technology, including a new tool that allows court staff to send group text messages to attorneys and litigants notifying them of when their cases are ready to be heard, so that they can wait in more spacious areas of the courthouse, or even outside of the courthouse, instead of congregating in crowded courtrooms waiting for their cases to be called,” DiFiore said.

In her speech, Chief Judge DiFiore gave a special shout-out to Brooklyn judges Hon. Frederick Arriaga and Hon. Joseph Gubbay, from the Brooklyn Treatment Court, who have conducted 425 virtual hearings since the beginning of May. She also mentioned Hon. Sherry Klein Heitler, who helped to coordinate the more than 300 treatment courts in New York.

“While the pandemic has intensified the problems facing many treatment court participants, and in some cases adversely affected their care systems, we are fortunate that our treatment court judges, coordinators, case managers and stakeholders have adjusted their operations and found new and innovative ways to connect with and support these individuals,” Chief Judge DiFiore said.

“Our treatment court judges and staff have leveraged remote technology to assess and admit new participants, monitor compliance and progress, connect participants with needed services and even conduct a number of virtual graduations,” she added.

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