Chief Justice Enters Additional Emergency Directives Governing Court Operations

This post was updated on May 22, 2020 to include discussion of a May 21, 2020 order extending deadlines in criminal cases and a May 14, 2020 order from the North Carolina Supreme Court. 

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley entered an order today imposing eight new emergency directives (Directives 9 -16) to address court operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chief Justice entered a separate order extending time for documents to be filed and acts due to be done in criminal cases in the trial courts.

New Directives

No jury trials before August. Emergency Directive 10 prohibits jury trials from convening in district or superior court for the next thirty days. The directive also states that the Chief Justice (whose emergency orders under G.S. 7A-39(b) expire 30 days from issuance) intends to extend this directive through at least the end of July. The order further directs the Chief Justice’s COVID-19 Task Force to develop best practices and minimum requirements for the convening of jury trials and to submit those recommendations to the Chief Justice and to the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) by June 30, 2020. (Emergency Directive 16).

COVID-19 Coordinators. Each senior resident superior court judge must designate a COVID-19 Coordinator for his or her district. (Emergency Directive 11). The name of the COVID-19 Coordinator for each facility must be submitted to the AOC by 5:00 PM on May 26, 2020.

In preparation for the resumption of jury trials on or after August 1, 2020, the COVID-19 Coordinator must determine whether there is adequate space in the court facility to convene a jury trial in keeping with current public health guidance. (Emergency Directive 16). If local court facilities are not adequate to convene socially distanced jury trials, the senior resident superior court judge must identify by July 1, 2020 other appropriate facilities for such trials. If the alternate facility is located outside the county seat, information about the alternate proposed facility must be submitted to the AOC for approval and, when required, to the Chief Justice for approval, in accordance with G.S. 7A-42(i) and 7A-130(b).

Limitations on court. Emergency Directive 9 provides that no session of court may be scheduled if doing so would result in “members of the public sitting or standing in close proximity and/or for extended periods of time in contravention of current public health guidance[.]” The directive encourages judicial officials to continue to utilize remote hearing technology and advises them to minimize large gatherings and face-to-face interactions between personnel and the public.

Before any court calendar is published or distributed, the COVID-19 Coordinator must ensure that: (1) each session or sessions of court will not result in members of the public sitting or standing in close proximity for extended periods of time counter to current health public health guidance; and (2) a facemask will be available to all judicial branch personnel assigned to a courtroom for more than thirty minutes. (Emergency Directive 13). For sessions of court for which calendars already have been distributed, the COVID-19 Coordinator must make such assurances before the session of court begins.

Marking and signage. Emergency Directive 12 requires each senior resident superior court judge to ensure the following for each facility in his or her district: (1) intervals of at least six feet in every direction are visibly marked in areas where the public is expected to congregate; (2) the maximum occupancy of each courtroom or meeting space is set so that people may observe social distancing of at least six feet in every direction; (3) the maximum occupancy is prominently posted at the entrance to each courtroom or meeting space; (4) hand sanitizer is available at the entry and exit of the facility and, preferably, at all “high touch areas”; and (5) public areas are cleaned daily, with high touch areas cleaned periodically throughout the day.

Filings. Emergency Directive 14 directs clerks to ensure that filings may be submitted during normal business hours and to ensure access to public records. Clerks may (1) require that filings be submitted using a secure drop box and (2) limit access to public records to certain hours and to appointment only.

Attorneys and litigants are encouraged to submit filings by mail. (Emergency Directive 15). Beginning June 1, 2020, pleadings and other documents delivered to the clerk by the U.S. Postal Service are deemed timely filed if they are received within five business days of the date the filing is due.

Expiration. These emergency directives expire June 20, 2020.

Extension of Deadlines

The Chief Justice entered a separate order extending deadlines in criminal cases. The order provides that deadlines for filing documents and deadlines for other acts due between March 16, 2020 and July 31, 2020 (inclusive of those dates) are extended until the close of business on July 31, 2020.

The order specified that it did not alter Emergency Directive 7, entered by the Chief Justice on May 1, 2020. That earlier directive, discussed here, extended by 90 days the date by which payment must be made in certain criminal and infraction cases.

Supreme Court Order

The North Carolina Supreme Court issued an order on May 14, 2020 that, among other things, provides that during the educational biennium beginning July 1, 2019 and ending June 30, 2020, a judge or justice may attend approved continuing legal or judicial education programs remotely. Many district court judges obliged this week as they attended the NC Association of District Court Judges’ 2020 Virtual Conference. It was wonderful to see their faces on zoom, though it was far less enjoyable than seeing them in person. Several of them attended a virtual reception after the on-line instruction ended, but complained that the food was not very good.

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