October 15 Omnibus Order Amends and Extends Emergency Directives

Update: These directives were renewed by an order entered November 16, 2020.  They now expire December 14, 2020.  

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley entered an omnibus order on Thursday, October 15, 2020 extending emergency directives issued in response to the public health threat posed by COVID-19, which otherwise would have expired on that date. The order extends Emergency Directives 2-5, 8-15, 18, and 20-22.  It also modifies directives 2, 10, 21, and 22. These directives (discussed in further detail below) now expire November 14, 2020.

Emergency Directive 2. This directive 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. The latest iteration of this directive redefines who is “a person who has likely been exposed to COVID-19.” It adds as a symptom “loss of smell and/or taste,” clarifies that exposure to or diagnosis of COVID-19 is relevant only if it occurred in the last fourteen days, and removes the reference to recent international travel.

The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) has revised the “Do not Enter Courthouse if Exposed to COVID-19” sign to conform to the amended directive.

Emergency Directive 3. This directive (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 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 permits verification of pleadings and other documents by affirmation of the subscriber.

Emergency Directive 8. This directive 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 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 provides that no jury trials may be conducted in the superior or district court of any county unless the jury trial resumption plan for that county and trial division has been approved by the Administrative Office of the Courts and entered as a local administrative order.

Emergency Directive 11. This directive 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 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 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 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 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 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. It also requires that plaintiffs file a form affidavit in such actions.

Emergency Directive 20. This directive 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 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.

AOC has modified its “Mask Required” sign to conform to the language in the latest directive.

Emergency Directive 22. This directive 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.

AOC has advised that a senior resident superior court judge may modify a district’s plan without seeking approval as long as the plan is not “significantly alter[ed].” Judges have been instructed to make the necessary changes, enter the revised plan as a local administrative order and then to send the revised order to AOC for posting on its website.

AOC has encouraged judicial officials to remain aware of public health guidance about masks and social distancing related to jury trials, including the following:

  • Plastic face shields and Plexiglas barriers are not a substitute for face coverings;
  • Six feet of social distancing is the “bare minimum” inside poorly ventilated places;
  • If face coverings have to be removed, that should only occur while a person is speaking and for no more than fifteen minutes at a time;
  • Microphones should be made available to all speakers to reduce the transmission of particles; and
  • Judicial officials should consider providing alternate means of testifying for witnesses at high-risk, such as testifying from a nearby room via audio and video transmission.

Bond forfeiture proceedings. In addition to the directives listed above, the Chief Justice entered an order on September 30, 2020 granting a further extension of time in bail bond forfeiture proceedings for motions to set aside and objections to motions to set aside. Those motions and objections may be filed until the close of business on November 30, 2020. The order stays until after November 30, 2020 any entry of final judgment of forfeiture or the granting of a motion to set aside due to the district attorney or board of education’s failure to file a timely written objection.

Additional relief to be liberally granted. Finally, the Chief Justice’s October 15, 2020 order encourages court officials to liberally grant additional relief and accommodations to parties, witnesses, attorneys, and others with business before the courts.

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