Today Chief Justice Cheri Beasley entered an order halting most types of court proceedings due to the rising levels of COVID-19. The order was expected. The Chief Justice and McKinley Wooten, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), had issued a memorandum to judicial branch employees on Friday notifying them that the order was coming. The memorandum stated that more than 80 North Carolina counties are experiencing substantial or critical community spread of the virus and that the recent surge of cases and hospitalizations had strained court operations. It further noted that 53 counties had reported court closures during the pandemic, some more than once, and that 11 counties had reported closures in the past week. Today’s order reinstitutes Emergency Directive 1, which previously had expired on May 30, 2020, and extends and modifies other emergency directives. The provisions of today’s order, discussed in more detail below, expire on January 13, 2021.
Emergency Directive 1. This directive requires that in-person superior and district court proceedings, including proceedings before clerks of superior court, be scheduled or rescheduled for on or after January 14, 2021 unless one of the following exceptions applies:
- The proceeding is required by due process (such as a first appearance, bond hearing, or probable cause hearing);
- The proceeding is to obtain emergency relief (such as a domestic violence protection order, temporary restraining order, juvenile custody order, judicial consent to juvenile medical treatment order, or civil commitment order); or
- The senior resident superior court judge, the chief business court judge, or chief district court judge determines that the proceeding may be safely conducted.
The directive does not apply to any proceeding in which a jury already has been empaneled, though Emergency Directive 10, discussed below, provides that no new juries may be empaneled for the next 30 days.
Emergency Directive 2. This directive was renewed in today’s order. It requires the posting of notices at court facilities directing that any person who has likely been exposed to COVID-19 should not enter the courthouse.
Emergency Directive 3. This directive, renewed in today’s order and discussed in more detail here, authorizes judicial officials to conduct proceedings that include remote audio and video transmissions notwithstanding other provisions of law.
Emergency Directive 4. This directive, renewed in today’s order, provides that attorneys and other persons who do not have business in a courthouse should not enter the courthouse and encourages attorneys to submit filings by mail.
Emergency Directive 5. This directive, renewed in today’s order, permits verification of pleadings and other documents by affirmation of the subscriber.
Emergency Directive 8. This directive, renewed in today’s order, provides that magistrates must continue to perform marriage ceremonies in suitable locations approved by the chief district court judge. The chief district court judge may restrict the hours and times at which marriage ceremonies are conducted.
Emergency Directive 9. This directive, renewed in today’s order, 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 in contravention of current public health guidance.
Emergency Directive 10. This directive was amended by today’s order. It now provides that no jury trials may be conducted in the superior or district court of any county for the next 30 days unless a jury already has been empaneled.
Emergency Directive 11. This directive, renewed in today’s order, requires each senior resident superior court judge to serve as or designate a COVID-19 coordinator for each facility in his or her district.
Emergency Directive 12. This directive, renewed in today’s order, requires each senior resident superior court judge to ensure that certain public health protocols (including the marking of six foot intervals, the establishing of maximum occupancy, and the cleaning of public areas) are followed for each facility in his or her district.
Emergency Directive 13. This directive, renewed in today’s order, requires the COVID-19 coordinator to ensure that certain public health protocols will be followed before any court calendar is published.
Emergency Directive 14. This directive, renewed in today’s order, permits clerks to require that filings be submitted using a secure drop box and that access to public records be provided by appointment.
Emergency Directive 15. This directive, renewed in today’s order, encourages attorneys and litigants to submit filings by mail and provides that documents delivered by U.S. mail are deemed timely filed if received within five business days of the due date.
Emergency Directive 18. This directive, which was amended by today’s order, provides that no writ of possession may issue in a summary ejectment action unless the magistrate or judge makes certain determinations required by the CARES Act. (The latest order amends the specifications regarding those determinations.) The directive also requires that plaintiffs file a form affidavit in such actions.
Emergency Directive 20. This directive, renewed in today’s order, provides that a summons in a summary ejectment action must require the defendant to appear within 30 days (rather than the usual 7 days) of issuance.
Emergency Directive 21. This directive, renewed in today’s order, requires all persons in a court facility to wear a face covering while they are in common areas and when they are or may be within six feet of another person. A face shield may be used in addition to, but not as a substitute for, a face covering.
The face-covering requirement does not apply to persons who:
- cannot wear a face covering for health or safety reasons,
- are actively eating or drinking,
- are communicating with someone who is hearing-impaired in a way that requires the mouth to be visible,
- are temporarily removing their face covering to secure medical services or for identification purposes,
- who are complying with a directive from law enforcement, or
- are under five years old.
During a jury trial, the judge may order a juror answering questions during voir dire or a testifying witness to remove his or her face covering so that the person’s facial expressions may be observed. A juror or witness’s face covering may only be removed for this purpose while the person is speaking and only if he or she is at least six feet away from any other person.
A presiding judge also may, upon a showing of good cause and after considering all appropriate health concerns, exempt a defendant in a criminal case from the face covering requirement during the defendant’s jury trial.
Emergency Directive 22. This directive, renewed in today’s order, requires each senior resident superior court judge to craft a plan for the resumption of jury trials in his or her judicial district. If warranted, a chief district court judge may craft a separate plan for the resumption of jury trials in district court. The jury trial resumption plan generally must be approved by specified officials in the county in which jury trials are to be conducted.
Additional relief to be liberally granted. Today’s order, like its predecessors, encourages court officials to liberally grant additional relief and accommodations to parties, witnesses, attorneys, and others with business before the courts.
COVID-19 Task Force Reconvened. The Chief Justice also reconvened the Judicial Branch COVID-19 Task Force, chaired by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Don Bridges and Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening, which will meet tomorrow afternoon.
Planning for 2021. In their Friday memorandum to court officials, the Chief Justice and AOC Director said that scaling back court operations for the next 30 days would give court officials an opportunity to plan for measures to protect the health and safety of employees and the public in the coming year, when, they said, community spread is expected to be even higher. They expressed hope that such planning would minimize or avoid the need for additional court closures in 2021.