North Carolina courts are opening in June, but it won’t be the same as before the COVID-19 shutdown, N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley said Thursday.
For one thing, there will be no jury trials at least until August, and most court hearings will be conducted remotely through videoconferencing.
“Until this pandemic passes, it cannot be business as usual for our court system,” Beasley said during a livestreamed news conference Thursday morning.
Like every other sector of society, the novel coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19, has disrupted the court system. In North Carolina, more than 20,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 716 people have died. Forsyth County has had more than 800 positive cases, with eight deaths.
Since early March, Beasley, who as chief justice is the head of the state’s court system, has issued several executive orders limiting court operations and continuing most District Court and Superior Court criminal and civil cases until June 1. Courts have held certain emergency hearings, such as bond motions for jail inmates. And some misdemeanor and felony pleas have been heard for jail inmates who are awaiting trial.
Starting June 1, court operations are going to ramp up but they will do so slowly. District Court courtrooms will no longer be crowded with people waiting for their cases to be heard. Court officials will provide 6-foot markers so that people can comply with social-distancing requirements. Some local courthouses in the state may require people to wear face masks. And hand sanitizers will be made available.
“Court is going to look different for awhile,” Beasley said in a news release. “Dockets will be smaller. Cases will be heard online. We’re going to have to socially distance in the courthouse.”
County court officials will determine exactly how different court hearings will be conducted, she said.
Todd Burke, senior resident judge of Forsyth Superior Court, said he had already stopped bringing jail inmates into the courthouse for hearings. Instead, the hearings are conducted in a courtroom that allows for videoconferencing. Inmates can talk from the jail to their attorneys through a phone in the courtroom.
Burke has asked the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts to make a Superior Court courtroom suitable for videoconferencing. He said he is planning for more Superior Court matters to be heard by the end of June.
“I’m not trying to rush this process,” he said. “I have to do these things in collaboration with the other stakeholders.”
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill said his office has worked hard over the past several weeks to conduct hearings required by state law and to provide help and resources to crime victims.
“As we move forward towards the gradual reopening of the court system to the public, we will work closely with our partners in the Hall of Justice to try and ensure the safety of all who enter here,” he said Thursday. “I am anxious to resume normal court functions and operations to continue to maintain the highest levels of community safety without jeopardizing anyone’s health.”
Members of the grand jury, which considers indictments, are scheduled to meet for the first time since March on June 22, Burke said.
People coming to the courthouse will see some differences — chairs in common areas have either been removed or taped over. Courthouse security will make sure that people keepkeep 6 feet apart, he said.
“Additionally, we’re going to have masks available for the public,” Burke said. He is strongly encouraging people to wear face masks while they are in the courthouse.
“Quite frankly, I had suggested that people be given an ink pen, gloves and a mask and a ... bottle of hand sanitizer,” he said, noting that would require county money and there’s no guarantee people would use them.
Beasley’s latest order extends some filing deadlines to July 31, including for criminal matters. Other filings are due June 1.
She also encourages filing court documents by mail or using a physical drop box.
And she said things are always subject to change.
“It is important to remember that a rapid upward trend in infections could result in a cancellation of court dates,” Beasley said.