WHEN the COVID-19 pandemic first struck the state this spring, the Judicial Branch acted to protect the safety of our citizens by suspending all jury trials. Following several weeks of careful planning and preparation, as well as instituting significant measures to protect the health of prospective jurors, witnesses, attorneys and court staff, we will soon resume jury trials. Next month, we will convene a pilot jury trial in Cheshire County. As we do our best to afford the defendants their constitutionally guaranteed right to a speedy and public jury trial, I want to assure all prospective jurors and witnesses that your health and safety is paramount to this process.
Jury duty stands as a cornerstone of democracy in New Hampshire and the United States. Jury trials are essential to our system of justice but they cannot work without your participation. Not only do jury trials protect individual rights but they also provide citizens with the chance to participate in the judicial process, and to safeguard our constitutional freedoms. The strength of the jury lies in the common sense and experience of a broad cross-section of society. That is why all eligible citizens are called upon to serve as jurors; whether you are a worker, a student, a homemaker, or are unemployed or retired.
The COVID-19 virus has affected us all and has forced us to act vigilantly to protect ourselves and our loved ones. For many New Hampshire citizens the virus has drastically changed how we live and work. While New Hampshire courthouses remained open during the past three months, resuming jury trials required significant preparation. The Judicial Branch spent that time closely monitoring the guidance offered by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the safety measures necessary to resume jury trials. We considered best practices from the states that have successfully restarted jury trials in their regions. We have also consulted with State of New Hampshire Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jonathan Ballard, and national infectious disease expert Dr. Erin Bromage from UMass-Dartmouth.
Dr. Ballard has met with an internal committee I created to plan for the resumption of court operations, and has reviewed and approved our plan for the resumption of jury trials. Dr. Bromage has conducted a walk-through of several of our courthouses and suggested ways we can safely resume jury trials. Based on their expert advice, we believe the Superior Court has designed a process that will provide a safe environment for jurors, victims, witnesses and everyone in the courtroom, while ensuring the due process rights of defendants.
One measure we have taken includes conducting the initial stages of the jury selection process through video conferencing, which will eliminate the need for 150 jurors to appear at the courthouse. Once an eligible pool of jurors is identified remotely, jurors will complete the selection process one at a time at the courthouse. When the jury selection process is complete, 12 jurors and 2 alternates will appear at the courthouse to listen to the evidence, to hear the judge’s instructions and to deliberate. During the trial, jurors will be seated in the gallery, according to markings that provide protective separation, or in the jury box if it is of sufficient size to ensure social distancing.
All jurors, attorneys, witnesses and court staff, including the judge, will be required to wear masks. The court will provide plentiful hand-sanitizers, along with masks, to anyone who needs one. All courthouses will have a professional cleaning company to sanitize the court room at the end of each day, and to clean all bathrooms and common areas throughout the day. Court staff will screen all jurors, witnesses and attorneys for COVID-19 related concerns each day, and will respond to any concerns raised during the screening through detailed protocols the judicial branch has developed.
Because of the actions of our state and local leaders during the pandemic and the conduct of our citizens, New Hampshire remains one of the few states with low infection rates. We believe the measures we have taken will help ensure that the constitutionally guaranteed right to a jury trial is respected and honored, even in these challenging times. If you are called upon to serve on a jury, I hope you will serve confidently, knowing the process we have established will allow you to safely take part in our proud democratic tradition.