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Chief Judge touts success of grand juries as jury trials return on Wednesday in parts of NY

First jury trials in New York State since March

September 9, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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Two jury trials, one criminal and one civil, will be held in Suffolk County on Wednesday — a significant milestone for the New York State Unified Court System, which has not held a jury trial since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore explained on Monday, in the weekly State of the Legal Community address that she has held throughout the pandemic, that she is confident in the return of jury trials, on a pilot basis at first, following the successful return of grand juries in previous weeks.

“The right to a trial by jury is one of the keystones of our justice system, and so this week’s restart of a limited number of jury trials marks an important step in our journey toward our ‘new normal,’” Chief Judge DiFiore said.

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“Based on the many weeks of careful preparation by our judges and professional staff, and based on our successful experience in safely and smoothly empaneling over 100 grand juries across the state without significant incident or illness, we are confident in our ability to begin to safely conduct jury trials throughout the New York State courts,” she said.

Grand juries were convened for the first time in New York City on Aug. 10. The chief judge explained that 1,739 people showed up to court in person in New York City that week and explained that the percentage of people who responded to summonses is similar to that of years past.

“All of this suggests, of course, that New Yorkers rightly expect our courts to be up and functioning in-person even at this difficult time and that they have confidence in our ability to properly safeguard public health and responsibly discharge our duties, with safety as our number one priority,” Chief Judge DiFiore said.

The court system plans to evaluate itself by having an epidemiologist tour the court buildings and offer guidance and recommendations about how the system can improve safety more than it already has through social distancing measures, installation of plexiglass barriers, a mask mandate and temperature readings at all entrances.

“And we will continue our practice of having our administrative and supervising judges report back to us on a daily basis, particularly as they closely monitor jury trial operations in their courts and speak with their trial judges and professional staff about all aspects of participant safety,” Chief Judge DiFiore said. “We evaluate these reports each day and follow up whenever necessary or appropriate to guard against and reduce exposure to risk.”

The jury trials are being conducted on a pilot basis starting with the two trials in Long Island on Wednesday, then another in Erie County on Thursday. New York City is expected to follow sometime later in September, but the chief judge did not suggest a potential start date.

The court system is still heavily leaning on virtual hearings and teleconferencing to get things done, but it has resumed a number of in-person bench trials recently, including in-person hearings in Criminal Courts statewide, hearings in all five boroughs of the Housing Court and in-person civil hearings in the Supreme Courts of New York, Queens and Bronx counties, DiFiore said.

The court will be hosting a ceremony on Friday, Sept. 11 to commemorate the 19th anniversary of 911 and honor three the three court officers who died that day — Capt. William “Harry” Thompson, Sgt. Mitchel Wallace and Sgt. Thomas Jurgens. The event will be broadcast on NYCourts.gov.


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