In regular times, North Carolina’s state courthouses are high traffic venues, filled with employees, attorneys, media, law enforcement officers, and members of the public. Much of the work that transpires in these venues takes place through in-person interactions. Litigants file pleadings and other paperwork with the clerk’s office. Attorneys meet with clients, witnesses, law enforcement officers, and victims to explain proceedings, negotiate pleas, discuss schedules, and prepare for hearings and trials. Reporters often are on-hand to report on cases, activities, and trends of interest. Some law enforcement officers appear to testify; others are there to provide security. And then there is the public. Hundreds of defendants may appear on any given criminal district court docket. Many of them are accompanied by friends or family members. Some defendants seek to have an attorney appointed; others ask for a continuance. Some plead guilty in open court, and others submit a waiver of appearance, admission of guilt, and pay fines and costs to the clerk to resolve outstanding charges. Victims also appear to observe the disposition of a criminal cases in which they were harmed. Many of these people–defendants, friends, family, and victims alike–may spend hours sitting shoulder to shoulder in a crowded courtroom before completing their business before the court.
The courthouse scene has been dramatically different and has involved significantly fewer in-person interactions in the weeks since Chief Justice Cheri Beasley entered her first COVID-19 emergency directive on March 13, 2020. While courts have remained opened, and judges have continued to hear emergency and time-sensitive matters, regular sessions of criminal court have largely ceased in most districts. Most criminal cases have been continued until June 1, 2020 or later pursuant to the Chief Justice’s directives. With June 1 just a few weeks away and with the Governor slowly easing COVID-19 restrictions, court officials are now considering how they can resume some of their previous in-court activities while ensuring the safety of everyone present in the courthouse—from employees to the public.
Chief Justice Beasley has created a COVID-19 task force charged with making recommendations for how state courts may resume some in-person sessions and expand opportunities for in-person hearings in the coming months. The task force is co-chaired by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Don Bridges and Chief District Court Judge J. Corpening. A complete list of task force members is available here.
Among the issues the task force will consider is how to resume regular criminal court sessions on some limited basis. That will require prioritizing cases for hearing and implementing innovative scheduling practices to reduce the number of people who must appear in the courthouse at a given time. The Best Practices Committee for the NC Conference of District Attorneys created this plan, which includes a sample phase-in approach for operations. After the task force completes its work, the Chief Justice may provide guidance about appropriate procedures, including matters such as when jury trials might resume and protocols for the operation of grand juries during these unprecedented times.
Whatever the precise plan, it is certain that courtrooms will look different on June 1. Court officials already are mapping out seating plans that comport with six-foot social distancing requirements. This will result in a significant reduction in courtroom capacity. Some non-courthouse facilities may become de facto courtrooms to make up for limited capacity. They could also be used as areas for the public to view a live-video of court proceedings if there is no space in the courtroom where the defendant is located. Many people in the courthouse and courtroom will be wearing masks; indeed, some court officials are planning to provide masks to members of the public. Fewer people may place their hands on a courtroom Bible as they promise to testify truthfully; many more may affirm that commitment. Commonly touched surfaces in courthouses may be cleaned multiple times daily. And visitors to the courthouse may be asked to have their temperature taken.
It seems inevitable that next year’s fiscal report on judicial branch operations will differ significantly from the one just released for 2018-19. Wholesale continuances will almost certainly result in longer times to disposition. Case filings also may be significantly lower this year. Fewer people have been out and about, and law enforcement officers may have charged and arrested fewer people for lower-level offenses, given concerns about reductions in court operations and the presence of COVID-19 in jails.
Courthouse operations will expand on June 1, but will not immediately reboot to their March 13 levels. The officials I have heard from are planning deliberately and with caution. As the district attorneys noted in a sample working group document attached to their recommendation: “[U]ntil there are widely-available vaccines or more effective viral therapies for COVID-19, the distinct possibility exists that the whole of the state or parts of the state could go back into a lockdown situation, and so plans should be made for those contingencies as well.”
Sigh. It will be some time before we are back to normal.
Yet, as I listen to court officials make plans to keep our courts operating during these uncertain times and to ensure the ongoing administration of justice, I am reminded of how fortunate we are to have such dedicated public servants working for the people of North Carolina. We appreciate you and applaud your efforts. And we look forward to learning more about your plans to expand court operations in June.