North Carolina courts ‘frozen’ until summer

Associate Justices Paul Newby and Robin Hudson applaud for new Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, center, of the N.C. Supreme Court during Beasley's investiture ceremony in Raleigh on Thursday, March 7, 2019. (Paul Woolverton/The Fayetteville Observer via AP)

RALEIGH — Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts director McKinley Wooten Jr. sent a memo to judicial branch employees on the last day of April to highlight the chief justice’s new COVID-19 task force and to provide an update on the status of court proceedings.

In the memo, of which a copy was obtained by North State Journal, Beasley says “We have been closely monitoring the guidance of public health officials as we think about our path forward. Last week, Gov. Cooper announced a graduated plan for lifting restrictions on mass gatherings and reopening North Carolina’s businesses. That plan indicates that we must continue to exercise social distancing and limit the gathering of large groups, particularly in public places, well into the summer.”

Beasley said it is clear that courts will not be able to resume normal functions for several more months, likely into the fall. She also cautioned that court functions cannot remain “frozen in time” and plans would need to be created to provide services to the public and protect health and safety.

Further, Beasley said it will not be possible to convene jury trials or other high-volume court sessions in June. She had previously ordered court postponements in two orders, which officially have an end date of May 30.

NSJ reached out to the NCAOC to ask about the memo. The NCAOC clarified that courthouses remain open for limited purposes, but did not address the contents of the memo sent to judicial branch employees.

“On March 15 Chief Justice Cheri Beasley asked judicial officials to drastically reduce operations in courthouses throughout the state in an effort to further limit the spread of the coronavirus,” said Charles Keller, an information and communication specialist with the agency. “While a very few courthouses had to close temporarily due to employees being exposed to COVID-19, most of North Carolina’s courthouses have remained open.”

The second order from Chief Justice Beasley stated documents due to be filed from March 16 to June 1 will be deemed timely filed if received on June 1, 2020.

Already, in the state’s 18th Prosecutorial District, which covers Chatham and Orange counties, hundreds of cases have been dismissed citing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The cases were previously on the district court criminal docket. Several more district attorneys’ offices are considering similar measures.

The rotation of Superior Court judges will be suspended for the fall term and all Superior Court judges will be assigned to their home districts. A source in one county told NSJ that they were planning on not having court sessions in June or July.

The emergency directives from the chief justice have broadened the court system’s ability to use audio and video transmissions for court proceedings, and judges across the state have the option to begin conducting hearings remotely.

“It is vitally important that the public have confidence that our courts are open and available to assist them and that we are taking every step we can to keep them safe when they do,” Beasley said. “We must also ensure the safety of our frontline court personnel by postponing less-urgent matters, avoiding high-volume court sessions, and shifting as much work as possible online.”