Half of the adults in North Carolina have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and the number of people testing positive for the virus in the state continues to plummet. Fewer than 200 positive cases were identified on the last day for which case counts were reported. Metrics like these signal the waning of a pandemic that has altered the lives of North Carolinians over the past 15 months and that has hampered the operations of state courts. On Friday, Chief Justice Paul Newby issued an order, effective today, extending only two of the dozens of emergency directives that have been issued over the course of the pandemic. Noting that COVID-19 concerns have caused cases to accumulate in the courts, Justice Newby stated that he was extending for 30 days only those directives necessary to dispose of those accumulated cases: Emergency Directive 3 and Emergency Directive 5.
A week ago, I noted that Chief Justice Paul Newby had renewed several emergency directives, including Emergency Directive 21, which required that persons in a court facility wear a face covering while in common areas of the courthouse. That changed on Friday, following the Centers for Disease Control’s advice that fully vaccinated people can safely resume most indoor and outdoor activities without wearing a mask. By order issued and effective on Friday, May 14, 2021, Chief Justice Newby eliminated Emergency Directive 21 altogether.
More than 50 percent of adults in North Carolina have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 43 percent of NC adults are fully vaccinated. COVID-19 cases have declined precipitously since a January peak of more than 15,000 positive tests on a single day, with daily cases now averaging under 2,000. Governor Roy Cooper has responded to these positive trends by lifting outdoor mask restrictions and increasing mass gathering capacity limits. The Governor has said if these trends continue, he plans to lift mandatory social distancing, capacity, and mass gathering restrictions by June 1.
Courthouse personnel, charged with ensuring that courts remain open and that justice is administered without delay, were designated as frontline essential workers and thus received early access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Many court officials are among the group of fully vaccinated North Carolina adults.
Recognizing these positive trends and the judicial branch’s constitutional obligations, Chief Justice Paul Newby entered an order on Friday, effective today, extending and modifying certain pandemic-related emergency directives, while allowing other directives to expire.
Emergency Directives 2, 3, 5, 11, 14, 15, and 21 remain in place (as modified) for an additional thirty days, expiring on June 6, 2021. Emergency Directive 8 (which allowed a chief district court judge to restrict the hours and times at which magistrate-officiated marriage ceremonies were conducted) and Emergency Directive 12 (which required 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, were followed for each facility in his or her district) were not renewed and expired yesterday.
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.
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.
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.