Despite acknowledging the seriousness of the pandemic, new state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby allowed several measures restricting in-person court operations statewide to expire today. Newby said such matters are “best addressed by local judicial officials,” in a new emergency directive order. The new order replaces the one issued by his predecessor Cheri Beasley in mid-December, which suspended non-essential in-person court hearings, in effect for 30 days, ending Wednesday.
In addition to ending the overarching 30-day pause period, Newby did away with directives that mandated that jury trials be postponed and that required those without business in a courthouse stay away.
He also used broader language for other directives that remained, suggesting less intervention regarding how remote technologies will be used.
North Carolina has been setting several new records for new COVID cases in recent days, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Instead of taking a top-down approach like Beasley’s, however, Newby encouraged local jurisdictions to work out their own plans to resume court operations.
Several jurisdictions have planned to reopen some of their courts that conducted business remotely, including Bertie, Hertford, Northampton and Wake counties on Jan. 19, according to a press release by the Administrative Office of the Courts and a memo from the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway in Wake County.
Wake County will also resume jury trials at criminal superior courts the week of January 25. The county reported multiple positive cases in January.
Chief District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch in Mecklenburg County, who tested positive for COVID-19 in early December, suspended all criminal arraignments and trials for 30 days in her district in an administrative order on Jan. 11.
Newby has been vocal about keeping courts open. The News & Observer reported that he wanted an open court for those in county jails awaiting trials, who are staying longer on average during the pandemic and potentially at higher risk of exposure to the virus.
Many other state court systems have suspended jury trials until later.
There will be a mask mandate in courthouses under the new directives. Gov. Cooper’s mask mandate doesn’t extend to the judicial branch, and it’s the chief justice’s call to make on practices to adopt.
Many North Carolina clerks of court have expressed concerns about their health. They handle many court documents and many courthouses don’t have enough room for court personnel to socially distance, and rotating between shifts can cause a slowdown of case processing, which sometimes exacerbates the problem of longer stays in jails. The judicial branch has had a larger caseload backlog this year compared to 2019.
“The Chief Justice has made request to the Governor that court personnel be given frontline essential worker status for vaccine prioritization since the constitution mandates that courts shall be open,” AOC Communications Director Sharon Gladwell said in a statement last Friday. Frontline essential workers are the next in line to get their shots after healthcare workers, long-term care residents and adults aged 65 years or older, according to the NCDHSS.
A Guilford county sheriff bailiff passed away after contracting COVID-19 a day after she fell ill in the middle of her shift at the courthouse following a full day of service at the court, WFNY News 2 reported.
The most recent orders related to court operations and jury resumption plans for each individual jurisdiction statewide can be found on the North Carolina Judicial Branch’s website.