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.
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.