Resumption of Jury Trials and Equitable Distribution Hearings
With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing for over one year now, the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas has finally released a tentative plan for the resumption of jury trials and equitable distribution hearings. Court officials believe they have developed a reasonable plan that will allow trials to take place back in the courtroom. While no firm dates have been set, the plans for the resumption of trials and hearings are as follows:
The proposed start dates for jury trials are June 1, 2021 for criminal trials and July 12, 2021 for civil trials. Procedures for scheduling these two different types of trials will be slightly different and will follow a specific protocol to keep things on track. When it comes to criminal trials, the emphasis will first be placed on cases involving incarcerated defendants and cases will be selected by the court to the extent possible based on space and security. There will also be priority placed on the scheduling of any cases that involve rule 600. The criminal cases will be placed on a two-week trial term and there will be up to 20 trials within each term. Notices will be sent out that set forth the dates of the trial term, the date of the final pre-trial conference, and the deadline for any submissions of pre-trial motions and proposed voir dire. Any final pre-trial conferences will be scheduled for the Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday of the week preceding the trial term. These conferences will be done via the Zoom platform and the trial counsel and defendant will be required to attend. The first Monday of the trial term is when suppression motions will be heard so juries will not be selected that day. The judge who hears these motions will be the same judge for the trial. With that being said, homicide cases will not be taking place again until August 15, 2021, and when these resume, the homicide juries will be picked on Mondays, which means no other juries for criminal cases will be picked on those days.
Civil scheduling will follow a slightly different procedure. Civil arbitration will begin scheduling again in June or July and it will use the inventory of cases that have been run through the Judge 10 program. During the first few months, only one case per day will be completed and the first group of civil trials will begin on June 1, 2021 with a panel of only eight jurors. Civil trials will not use a full panel of 12 jurors until July 5, 2021. Notices will be sent out in the remaining days of May for pre-trial conferences that are scheduled to occur in May and June. Each judge will handle conferencing 15 cases, for a total of 30 pre-trial conferences, and these 30 conferences will generate the cases to be tried during the months of July and August.
Jury selection will be a slightly different as well to ensure that COVID-19 protocols are being followed. Two juries will be chosen on most days: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. There will be five criminal juries available and two civil juries available within each two-week trial term. All juries will be screened for COVID-19 and each juror will be required to wear a mask and meet all current CDC guidelines. Additionally, another change consists of jury deliberation now taking place within the courtroom in order to ensure that social distancing guidelines are being followed.
When it comes to the resumption of divorce equitable distribution hearings in family court, there are approximately 150 pending cases, 50 of which are trial-ready. Orders for trial-ready cases have already been sent out and scheduled for pre-trial conferences. The order will state the specific conference date and the requirements that need to be met. All conferences will be held virtually on Zoom, but clients are required to attend. Cases that are not resolved during these conferences will be scheduled for a hearing with one of the three hearing officers and the hearing date will be determined during the Zoom conference. Conferences began on May 4, 2021, and it is expected that the 50 trial-ready cases will be completed by the first week of June. There is a three-step process for all equitable distribution cases: (1) there will be a case management conference with a hearing officer, which was just discussed above; (2) a settlement conference date will be scheduled for 45-60 days after the case management conference has occurred; and (3) if a hearing needs to be scheduled for a particular case, the hearing will be scheduled approximately 60 days after the settlement conference has occurred. Any requests for continuance must be made by motion no later than 15 days before the hearing date and responses must be filed five days from that date. All hearings will be on the record and any objections must be made on the record.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it very difficult to continue conducting trials and hearings, but county officials believe that this plan, which has now in fact been set in motion, will allow for a safe resumption and continuation of jury trials and equitable distribution hearings.