Last week, Chief Justice Paul Newby entered an order extending and modifying some of the emergency directives previously imposed by former Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. Chief Justice Newby’s order (issued January 13, 2021 and effective January 14, 2021) allowed other emergency directives to expire. This post reviews the latest emergency directives as well as recent leadership changes affecting the courts.
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With the exception of the buzz over the arrival of year Y2k, I have never in my lifetime seen people attach so much significance to the changing of the calendar year or express so much hope for what improvements that date change might usher in. The year 2021 has indeed arrived amidst the (socially distanced and masked) fanfare. And while none of us can know all of the ways in which our lives and work may change in the coming months, we do know that we will have new court system leaders helping us navigate these troubled waters.
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.
When I wrote about down-ballot election results a few weeks ago, I said that the election for Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court was too close to call. That remains the case. Current Associate Justice Paul Newby has a 409 vote lead over current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and a recount is underway.
Most people know that the Chief Justice is one of seven jurists on the North Carolina Supreme Court and that, like his or her fellow Associate Justices, the Chief Justice is elected to serve an eight-year term. Given the pandemic, many may also be familiar with the Chief Justice’s authority in response to catastrophic conditions to extend deadlines and periods of limitation and to issue emergency directives necessary to ensure the continuing operations of the courts. G.S. 7A-39. Readers may, however, be less familiar with other aspects of the Chief Justice’s authority and responsibilities that are essential to the administration of justice. The remainder of this post will highlight some of these lesser known roles and responsibilities, particularly as they relate to criminal proceedings.
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. Continue reading →
We have posted regularly during the COVID-19 pandemic about emergency directives entered by the Chief Justice pursuant to G.S. 7A-39(b)(2) that establish procedures and protocols governing the continuing operation of the courts. Last month’s post reviewed the status of directives then in place, noting their varying expiration dates. Last week, the Chief Justice entered an omnibus renewal order, which included all emergency directives currently in effect and placed all but one of them on the same expiration cycle. This post will briefly review those directives and other aspects of the September 15, 2020 order.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley has exercised her authority under G.S. 7A-39(b)(2) to issue orders imposing 22 emergency directives to ensure the continuing operation of the courts. Such emergency orders expire no later than 30 days from their issuance, though they may be renewed for additional 30-day periods. Because the orders imposing the directives were issued on differing dates, they have expired and have been renewed on differing schedules. The Chief Justice entered the latest renewal order yesterday. This post will review the directives that are currently in place, including those related to the eventual resumption of jury trials.
Among the Chief Justice’s early emergency directives and orders to address court operations in light of the COVID-19 outbreak were extensions for the time for paying monies owed in criminal cases. Those directives, which extended the time for doing certain acts in criminal cases and directed clerks to delay the entry of reports of failures to comply, were extended and modified in subsequent orders. The upshot was that defendants ordered to pay sums that would have resulted in entry of a “failure to comply” and the assessment of additional costs (and, in Chapter 20 cases, a report to DMV that would trigger a license revocation) had until July 31, 2020 to pay monies owed without incurring those consequences. That date passed last Friday, so clerks now are entering failures to comply, assessing the $50 in costs and reporting the entry to DMV in Chapter 20 cases.
The Chief Justice entered two new emergency directives last week, requiring people in court facilities to wear face coverings and directing senior resident superior court judges to craft a plan for jury trials to resume in the fall.
Face coverings. Face coverings have been required in most public spaces since June 26, 2020 pursuant to Executive Order 147. That gubernatorial order did not, however, apply to court facilities. As a result, requirements for face coverings in courthouses have varied among judicial districts. The Chief Justice created uniformity last Thursday when she entered an emergency directive requiring people in court facilities to wear face coverings while they are in common areas of the facility and when they are interacting with others.
McKinley Wooten, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), entered guidance in a July 17, 2020 memorandum clarifying that common areas are areas available for use by more than one person, such as lobbies, hallways, courtrooms, elevators, stairways, breakrooms and bathrooms.
The Chief Justice’s directive requires clerks of superior court to post a notice of the face covering requirement at the entrance to every court facility in their counties.
Exceptions. The face covering requirement for court facilities does not apply to a person who (1) cannot wear a face covering for health or safety reasons, (2) is actively eating or drinking, (3) is communicating with a person who is hearing impaired in a way that requires the mouth to be visible, (4) is temporarily removing a face covering to secure medical services or for identification purposes, or (5) is under eleven years of age.
Wondering about the general prohibition on mask wearing? The wearing of face masks in public areas has long been prohibited by criminal statutes adopted to regulate the activities of unlawful secret societies. Thus, G.S. 14-12.7 and 14-12.8 generally prohibit the wearing of face coverings that conceal the wearer’s identity on public ways and on public property. Exceptions apply for, among other things, traditional holiday costumes and for people engaged in jobs where masks are worn for physical safety or because of the nature of the profession. G.S. 14-12.11. In May, the General Assembly enacted an additional exception for a person wearing a mask to ensure the person’s physical health or safety or the physical health or safety of others. See S.L. 2020-3 (S 704). That exception was set to expire August 1, 2020, but the legislature recently made the change permanent in S.L. 2020-93 (S 232).
Jury trials. The Chief Justice entered Emergency Directive 10 on June 20, 2020, providing that no jury trials may be convened for the next thirty days. She noted then her intention to extend that directive through at least the end of July. The Chief Justice in Thursday’s order expressed her intention to extend Emergency Directive 10 until at least the end of September. She stated that while face coverings “will help decrease the spread of COVID-19 in our courthouses, more precautions and planning are necessary before jury trials may resume.”
Emergency Directive 22 requires each senior resident superior court judge, in consultation with other local officials, to craft a plan for the resumption of jury trials in his or her judicial district. If a chief district court judge determines that a separate plan for jury trials in district court is needed, he or she is directed, in consultation with other local officials, to craft that plan.
The plans. Each jury trial resumption plan must ensure that court operations comply with the Chief Justice’s emergency directives and must be informed by the AOC’s guidance on best safety practices.
Each plan must include the following:
- a confirmation that each court facility and any alternate facility to be used for court operations is in compliance with each of the Chief Justice’s emergency orders;
- a plan for summoning and excusing jurors, which allows for as much of the process to be handled remotely as possible;
- a plan for conducting voir dire with social distancing;
- a plan for conducting trials with social distancing in the courtroom for all court participants, including the jury, and in the deliberation room;
- a plan for daily screening of jurors, court personnel, attorneys, witnesses, and parties for COVID-19 exposure or infection;
- a plan for making face coverings available to jurors, court personnel, attorneys, witnesses, and parties; and
- a plan for responding in the event that a juror, defendant, attorney, witness, judge, or other courtroom personnel becomes symptomatic, tests positive for COVID-19, or has a known exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 during the trial.
Before jury summonses are issued, the senior resident must submit a copy of the plan to the Chief Justice. The plan, which must be promulgated by local rule or administrative order no later than September 1, 2020, must be approved by each of the following officials in the county in which jury trials are to be conducted:
- the chief district court judge;
- the clerk of superior court;
- the district attorney;
- the public defender, or a criminal defense attorney chosen by the senior resident superior court judge in districts without a public defender;
- the sheriff; and
- the public health director.
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley entered three emergency orders on Saturday affecting court operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two of the orders impact criminal cases. One extends the deadline for filing notices of appeal. The other extends the authorization for remote proceedings in Emergency Directive 3 and renews and modifies the provisions of Emergency Directive 7, which provides additional time to pay monies owed in a criminal or infraction case. (The third order stays eviction actions that currently are pending in the trial courts until June 21, 2020 and imposes other requirements related to eviction proceedings.) Continue reading →