Latest SJC Order and Its Impact on Your Case: MA Courts to Resume In-Person Trials with New Restrictions on Juries and to Continue Virtual Hearings and Bench Trials
March 1, 2021
Author: Robert W. Connelly, Esq., Attorney, Hamel Marcin Dunn Reardon & Shea, PC
As vaccinations continue and we move towards fully re-opening, courts here in Massachusetts have begun to issue updated guidance about court operations and the resumption of jury trials. As such, on March 1, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Fifth Updated Order Regarding Court Operations Under the Exigent Circumstances Created by the COVID-19 Pandemic went into effect. It supersedes all previous orders of the Supreme Judicial Court related to the pandemic.
In the order the Court affirmed that most court business will continue to be conducted virtually. What this means is that, with limited exceptions, all pre-trial or non-evidentiary hearings will occur via zoom or teleconference. Additionally, if you elect to resolve your case by way of a bench trial wherein a judge serves as the factfinder, that judge could permit you to conduct that bench trial virtually.
The exception to this general rule is jury trials. Under the order, jury trials are limited to juries of six, plus alternates (usually two additional jurors are chosen as alternates). As a reminder, in Massachusetts District Court trials are usually conducted in front of juries of six, but in Superior Court trials are conducted in front of juries of twelve. As is normally the practice, priority for trials will be given to criminal cases where the defendant is in custody. These trials will also be conducted pursuant to health and safety practices that have been identified as compliant with CDC guidelines. Cases to be tried will be identified through a collaborative effort between the court leaders of each court and counsel in each case. Most importantly, in this new order the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that civil cases in Superior Court that typically will be tried in front of juries of twelve be tried in front of juries of six with or without the consent of the parties. Further, each party in the trial will be limited to four preemptory challenges of the prospective jurors in a given case. These conditions are expected to last two months, after which the Court will issue further direction regarding the resumption of jury trials.
In theory, this means that you could be forced to resolve your case through a jury trial with half the usual amount of jurors whether you agree or not. In practice, however, courts have always prioritized criminal matters and older civil cases. We do not expect this to change as the courts continue to re-open and re-start jury trials. In the event you are forced into a trial, rest assured that we will vigorously and aggressively defend your interests at trial. We fully expect the Supreme Judicial Court’s direction on jury trials to evolve as we continue to move towards re-opening here in the Commonwealth and will continue to monitor the Court’s orders and report on any new consequential developments.
If you have questions about the pandemic’s impact on your case with HMDRS, please feel free to reach out. We look forward to hearing from you and hopefully seeing you in person soon! ♦
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