Courts getting ready to reopen
May 31, 2020
Court will soon be in session.
An order issued by the New Mexico Supreme Court on Thursday lifted the suspension of jury trials in criminal and civil cases that had been in effect since March. Courts are permitted to resume jury trials between June 15 and July 15.
“As our state gradually reopens, courts can safely resume jury trials as local conditions permit,” State Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura stated. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, New Mexico courts have worked diligently to protect the health of people entering a courthouse. In resuming jury trials, our courts will rigorously follow COVID-safe practices developed by public health authorities.”
Locally, the 9th District Court had already been preparing a return.
The 9th and 12th Districts had been selected as trial balloons for beginning new criminal trials, with the 9th looking to restart the week of June 22, “while adhering to the health restrictions and guidelines that have been given to us by the state and the Center for Disease Control,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Stover said.
Safety precautions will make courtrooms seem different for awhile, like most aspects of life. Among those precautions:
n Masks and protective face coverings will be required for anyone entering a court building.
n Court visitors will be subject to health screening, including temperature checks, to determine whether they exhibit any possible coronavirus symptoms.
n The number of people in locations throughout a courthouse will be limited to ensure proper social distancing.
n Judicial buildings will be frequently cleaned and disinfected, especially high-touch surfaces such as doors, tables, counters and courthouse seating.
That was already going to be the case in the 9th and 12th Districts with the balloon trials.
Stover’s description of how that would go turned out to be a glimpse into how jury trials statewide will proceed beginning June 15.
“Normally we’d have people sitting very close together during jury trials,” Stover said, “but we’re going to try to modify that. They will probably not allow any spectators in the courtroom; spectators will be in a separate room, able to watch the proceedings on two-way video. But the jurors themselves will be spread out across the room to make sure they are kept safe.”
Stover noted that jurors would have to sit a minimum of 6 feet from each other, the familiar social distancing guidelines that have been in place throughout all corridors of society since March.
“In certain areas of the courtroom, plexiglass will be put up to attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in areas surrounding the judge and some members of the courtroom personnel,” Stover said.
Thursday’s state Supreme Court order spoke to that issue regarding the resumption of jury trials throughout New Mexico.
Per the order, before courts are allowed to recommence jury trials, the chief judge in each judicial district must submit individualized plans for Supreme Court approval that detail the operating procedures and precautions implemented for courts in that district, including 1) steps for safeguarding jurors, lawyers, witnesses and others during a trial; 2) how to maintain minimum 6-foot physical distancing of people in courtrooms and jury selection rooms; 3) the use of plexiglass dividers and other protective barriers in a courthouse, all of which Stover noted were already going to be in practice for the 9th and 12th District Courts.
“I hope that anybody who is a citizen here in the 9th would understand how important it is to serve on a jury and to serve their community in that way,” Stover said, “and for them to have confidence that the courts are going to do everything possible to make sure they’re safe while they’re serving.”