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.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal court systems moved to virtual proceedings to maintain essential court operations while minimizing the spread of COVID-19. To understand more about that transition and the lessons it holds for the future, we surveyed North Carolina trial judges, prosecutors, defenders, and clerks of court about virtual court. Our survey included questions about changes to court proceedings during the pandemic, the benefits of and concerns about virtual court, best practice suggestions for virtual proceedings, support for various virtual proceedings, experiences with using various technology platforms, and other aspects of virtual proceedings. We received responses from 182 people (Figure 1) from all 100 North Carolina counties.
Figure 1. Survey Respondents’ Current Role in the Criminal Justice System
Our full report is available here. In this post we summarize some top line results.
Every practicing attorney and judge has by now likely seen the video of the Texas attorney who appeared at a court hearing conducted via Zoom in the form of a fluffy, white kitten. “I’m here live. I’m not a cat,” has emerged as the mantra of the week. The enthusiasm with which the recording has been shared reflects both the ubiquity of web-based hearings and the technological mishaps that can derail them. But technology is not the only thing that can go awry in a remote proceeding. Sometimes the problems are more fundamentally human, arising from behaviors that, were they committed in the courtroom, might lead to a finding of direct criminal contempt. Repeatedly talking over a judge or another litigant, arguing with a judge after having been asked to be quiet, cursing at a judge or another person present, using a racial slur, or appearing in a state of undress are examples. When a person engages in this sort of behavior in a remote proceeding, may the judge summarily punish the act as direct criminal contempt? Or must the judge issue an order to show cause and address the contemptuous behavior in a subsequent proceeding?
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley entered an order on Friday, May 1, modifying and extending eight emergency directives previously issued on April 2 and April 16, 2020. The Chief Justice’s April 2 order, in which noted that she fully expected to extend its directives for an additional 30-day period and that judicial system stakeholders should plan for the directives to last through May, presaged the current one. Emergency orders issued by the Chief Justice pursuant to G.S. 7A-39(b)(2) initially may endure for no more than thirty days, but may be extended for additional 30-day periods. Friday’s order was effective immediately and expires on May 30, 2020.
As before, three of the emergency directives are particularly significant in criminal cases.
Last month I blogged about the one type of delinquency hearing for which remote proceedings are expressly authorized in statute—hearings on continued custody. This blog analyzes the legal and practical considerations for holding other types of delinquency proceedings through the use of audio and video technology. It will provide an overview of the authority to hold other delinquency proceedings remotely, discuss special considerations related to delinquency proceedings, and address what it all means for first appearances, probable cause hearings, transfer hearings, adjudication hearings, and dispositional hearings.
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley entered an order yesterday extending until June 1, 2020 the time and periods of limitations for documents and papers due to be filed and acts due to be done in the trial courts. The Chief Justice previously had extended to April 17, 2020 the deadline for filings, periods of limitation and other acts. She further extended those deadlines based on predictions that late April “may be the apex of the [COVID-19] outbreak in North Carolina.”
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley entered an order last Thursday, April 2, 2020, imposing emergency directives that were immediately effective and that affect criminal cases.
Legal authority. The Chief Justice’s order was entered pursuant to G.S. 7A-39(b)(2), which permits the Chief Justice, after determining or declaring that catastrophic conditions exist in one or more counties of the state, to issue emergency directives necessary to ensure the continuing operation of essential trial or appellate court functions. Such directives are effective notwithstanding any other provision of law.