COVID-19 Has Forever Changed the NJ Court System
On March 12, 2020, State Supreme Court Chief Justice, Stuart Rabner, suspended all new jury trials in the Superior Court until further notice due to the COVID19 public health emergency. A few days later, the Division of Workers’ Compensation suspended all of its Court calendars. The judiciary attempted to continue the administration of justice by telephone and online technology. The rapid shift to virtual Court proceedings was a testament to the dedication of the judicial branch and its IT staff.
To this day, New Jersey Superior Court and the Division of Workers’ Compensation continue to conduct most matters remotely, although most Judges and Court staff are now working in their state offices.
The State Superior Courts did not reopen to the public until August 2, 2021, with limited staffing. For some unexplained reason, on-site staff presence was not increased to 100% until September 7, 2021. Face masks and social distancing will still be required for individuals entering the Courts, and the Court notices do not make any distinctions based on vaccination status.
The Division of Workers’ Compensation court facilities were reopened to the public on August 16, 2021. However, the vast amount of court proceedings will still be conducted online. Only Trials and Hearings on Motions for Medical and Temporary Disability Benefits will be conducted in-person.
State officials have failed to expound on why it has taken this long to fully reopen our Courts, given that retail businesses and restaurants were permitted to reopen long ago. Isn’t the administration of justice an essential service? It appears that the judiciary and attorneys have become so comfortable in operating remotely that there has not been a rush to return to live proceedings, regardless of changing public health risks.
In my opinion, even if all variants of COVID19 disappear overnight, the metamorphosis of our judiciary from brick & mortar courthouses to virtual platforms will never be reversed. The pandemic has forever changed the way attorneys and judges approach legal issues. We now know that it is possible for the wheels of justice to spin without multiple Court appearances. Reducing the time attorneys spend in Court could result in decreased legal costs, and more convenience for litigants. However, I am afraid that conducting all legal disputes with limited personal interaction between parties, attorneys, and judges will lead to more misunderstandings and litigation in the long-run. There is no substitute for face-to-face interactions. Human beings are social animals. Some stories cannot be adequately conveyed in writing or over the phone. I can’t help but feeling that our cohesiveness as a society is weakened by this severe reduction of the human element in our judicial system.
Lisa J. Pezzano, Esq.