By Arthur W. Pepin
Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts
Member of the Supreme Court's Emergency Response Team
The New Mexico Supreme Court has ordered jury trials to resume on Feb. 1, following their suspension because of increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases statewide and potential for further cases after end-of-year holidays. Recognizing public concerns about the coronavirus, all courts have implemented carefully considered, successful measures to protect jurors and trial participants. New Mexicans who reported for jury service during the pandemic overwhelmingly have indicated that they felt safe while performing their civic duty.
Jury trials serve as a cornerstone of the American justice system. In criminal cases, many defendants will remain in custody until afforded their constitutional right to a jury trial. In civil cases including business disputes, severe injuries, and divorces, parties may have waited years for a jury trial to resolve their cases. While taking appropriate and effective health precautions, it is important to provide jury trials to these New Mexicans.
Public health officials recommend that each of us wear a mask, frequently wash our hands, and maintain at least a six-foot physical distance to minimize the risks of contracting the coronavirus. New Mexico Courts follow strict protocols regarding health screenings, masks, distancing at all times, certainly with jurors, and during jury trials. Infectious disease experts indicate that, although new variants of the coronavirus are more easily transmitted during person-to-person contact, masks, distancing, and hand washing are as effective in reducing transmission for the new strains as for the original virus.
Safety protocols in place for jury trials between July and November 2020 will continue for jury trials beginning in February. Reconfigured courtrooms keep jurors at least six feet apart. Jurors, like all courthouse visitors, must wear masks and undergo a health screening daily upon entry into the building.
Courtrooms are disinfected regularly, including between uses for common touch surfaces. Everyone in a courthouse has ready access to hand sanitizer. Each juror receives sanitizer, a mask and individual supplies to avoid contact among jurors. Plexiglas barriers separate people in areas with tight spacing.
Judges conduct most non-jury court proceedings through online audio-visual systems to reduce the number of people inside courthouses. Interpreters appear remotely and witnesses can testify by video to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
Juror survey responses during the pandemic attest to the effectiveness of court practices to protect the health and well-being of jurors and others during trials. Of 720 jurors who reported for jury selection and responded to judicially conducted surveys from August to November:
• 96.9% stated the courts made efforts to minimize the risk of contracting the coronavirus while in the courthouse;
• 94.9% responded "yes" they felt safe throughout their jury service.
• 95.4% indicated they received good information about COVID-safe precautions implemented by courts.
The small number of negative responses were individually addressed with each court where those jurors served. When appropriate, the courts adopted adjustments to enhance safety. Anyone who observes a deficiency in adhering to safety protocols should immediately communicate that to the court. In addition, courts invite any suggestions to effectively further enhance the safety of jury trials when they resume.
The Judiciary honors those willing to serve as jurors, and all courts take seriously their obligation to keep jurors safe. Feedback from jurors shows that courts are meeting that obligation. On behalf of the Supreme Court's Emergency Response Team, I assure all New Mexicans that the Judiciary will continue to protect the health and safety of jurors and everyone entering a courthouse when trials resume in February.