To deal with the massive health implication of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations and businesses invested in virtual or remote connection opportunities.
In 2020, a pilot program allowed grand juries to resume business as usual but through virtual hearings.
The virtual grand jury dilemma
Many defendants did not approve of the virtual hearing opportunity and declined the option to move forward. However, the state decided this was not in the best interest of the courts and require defendants to participate in virtual hearings. The defendants and their legal counsel felt the use of Zoom sessions was a violation of their constitutional rights and brought the matter before the state’s Supreme Court.
On one hand, there was a concern over the potential exclusion of cross-sections of the community on account of the technology required to participate. This could lead to undue exclusion of elderly, minority or low-income individuals without access to or the necessary level of comfort to engage online. There was also the concern that the proceedings did not meet the standard for privacy on account of the juror’s remote location.
The high court’s decision
Ultimately, the Supreme Court for New Jersey ruled that virtual grand jury hearings are constitutional and provided the necessary technological safeguards to provide for an honest, fair proceeding. However, there are still concerns that this form of hearing does not provide a defendant or counsel the opportunity necessary to bring motions or challenge the proceedings and deliver a fair trial.
Defendants have a right to a fair trial and jury of their peers. Virtual grand jury hearings can complicate this right.