By Justice Judith K. Nakamura
New Mexico Supreme Court
Closing and locking the doors to justice is not an option during a public health emergency.
Imagine you are a victim of domestic violence isolated at home with your abuser. The stress of the pandemic has escalated the violence and you need an order of protection. The courts are your only recourse. This is not a hypothetical situation. Domestic violence case filings in our district courts are above pre-pandemic levels.
Victims, as well as parties in civil legal disputes which make up more than 70% of the Judiciary’s caseload, need access to our courts and their cases resolved. Nor, as some have suggested, can we continue to suspend jury trials. Defendants awaiting trial are constitutionally entitled to have their cases heard so that they can either serve their sentences or get on with their lives.
During this pandemic, our courts must remain open to timely and fairly administer justice while safeguarding the health and well-being of the public. To accomplish this, we have consulted with state health authorities and required our courts to adhere to the COVID-safe practices and precautions recommended by state officials and national judicial organizations.
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These safeguards include mandatory masks, separating people by a minimum of six feet, protective clear dividers where social distancing cannot be maintained, and conducting health screening and temperature checks of everyone before they are allowed inside a court building. Courts provide for stringent cleaning and sanitizing of their buildings. High-touch surfaces like doors, chairs and railings are cleaned frequently.
Courts are also limiting person-to-person interactions at courthouses by conducting as many non-jury hearings and trials as possible by telephone and video and encouraging people to electronically submit filings, payments, and other transactions.
As the state gradually reopens, the Judiciary has carefully expanded its operations and slowly resumed jury trials. Courts have prepared specific plans to protect the public and judicial employees as more people visit courthouses. These plans and the Court’s orders for COVID precautionary measures are available on the Judiciary’s website: www.nmcourts.gov.
For jury trials, courts have adopted new practices and procedures. Smaller groups of New Mexicans are brought into courthouses for jury selection. Once selected, each juror receives a wellness package with a mask and hand sanitizer. Jurors will sit in courtroom galleries as well as the jury box to ensure the minimum six-feet of separation, as recommended by public health officials. In some courthouses, jurors remain in the courtroom to deliberate rather than in a smaller jury room traditionally used. Lawyers and their clients may sit at opposite ends of a courtroom table but can use notepads, texting and email for their confidential communications.
When necessary, attorneys can request a short recess to conference with a client outside the courtroom.
All New Mexicans benefit from a fully operating system of justice, which includes jury trials. Thanks to the dedication and hard work of judicial employees across the state, courts will continue to do their best to keep people as safe as possible when they pass through a courthouse door. These judicial workers are day-to-day heroes along with the countless employees in businesses providing essential services during the pandemic.
Now more than ever, let us work together to keep the halls of justice open for all.
Justice Nakamura is chair of the Supreme Court’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Team and served as Chief Justice from June 7, 2017 until July 15, 2020.