What an In-Person Trial Looks Like in a Socially Distanced New Jersey Court
We recently participated in what the New Jersey Law Journal called the “first complex civil jury trial to be conducted in person since the COVID-19 pandemic.” Although the case settled shortly after opening statements, this experience taught us that New Jersey courts are ready to try complex civil cases safely and responsibly with new COVID protocols that may force trial attorneys to depart from their usual practices. We published an article in the New Jersey Law Journal about this experience that may be of interest to our readers.
The following is an excerpt:
In order to encourage social distancing, the judiciary has established density limitations on courtrooms. Although our trial took place in the largest civil courtroom available in Mercer County, occupancy was limited to the Judge, one or two court staff, a witness, two attorneys per party, and the 10 jurors.
And the courtroom was rearranged to spread these limited attendees more evenly throughout all of the available space. Benches had been removed from the public seating gallery, and jurors were seated throughout that area in well-spaced chairs. The jury box became the witness box. Counsel tables were turned around to face the jury (with our backs to the judge). A separate courtroom was setup nearby with a live feed on two large television screens for additional attorneys, clients, and members of the public.
This setup was ingenious and made everyone feel very safe, but also created problems. Once the jury was seated, for example, no one could enter or leave the courtroom because they would literally have to walk in-between the seated jurors. If, for example, you forgot to bring a document or exhibit, there was no way for a colleague to discreetly enter the courtroom and bring it to you. Viewing angles were also a problem. In most courtrooms, jurors sit together and have a clear and unobstructed view of the witness and exhibits that are displayed electronically. With this socially distanced layout, however, it was inevitable that jurors would have different views, and some of some those view would be better than others. Trial attorneys who are cognizant of courtroom theatre have to re-think their stage directions in order to be effective.