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Chief Justice Newby Issues Order Extending Emergency Directives

by Sarah Izzell, Law Clerk

Some courts have resumed in-person trials and other proceedings on a limited basis in accordance with Chief Justice Paul Newby’s order extending emergency directives. In the order, Chief Justice Newby authorized local judicial officials to exercise their decision-making authority over when and how to conduct jury trials and other in-person proceedings. However, magistrates must continue to perform marriage ceremonies with proper safeguards in place to promote social distancing. The Chief Justice urged local judicial officials to consult with their local health directors and abide by state and local directives in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

Safety Protocols

In adherence with the justice system’s commitment to re-opening safely, the order contains a number of additional directives to help local officials navigate the transition. Some of these protocols include symptom monitoring, cleaning procedures, distancing guidelines, and encouraging remote proceedings.

Symptom Monitoring

At the entrance to every courthouse, you will see a notice that prohibits persons who are either experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to COVID-19 from entering the building.  Additionally, every person is required to wear a facemask at all times while inside the courthouse. A face shield may not be used as a substitute for a face covering. During a trial or proceeding, the presiding judge may require a testifying witness to remove his or her face covering while they are actively speaking.

Cleaning Procedures

Hand sanitizer will be available at the entry and exit of every courthouse facility, and all areas accessed by the public will be cleaned daily. High touch areas including door knobs, water fountains, handrails, elevator walls and buttons, bathroom faucets and dispensers, and reception desks or counters will be cleaned periodically throughout the day.

Distancing Guidelines

Six feet markers are required in areas where the public may congregate or wait in line. Additionally, the maximum occupancy of courtrooms or meeting spaces will be reduced to ensure that persons are able to adequately social distance.

Remote Proceedings

Judicial officials may conduct remote court proceedings, but a party may, for good cause, object to the use of remote proceedings. Furthermore, constitutional demands may require that a criminal defendant appear in-person and the defendant must affirmatively waive these constitutional rights before a judge may use remote proceedings in a criminal trial.

To further limit foot traffic, the order also authorizes clerks to utilize a secure drop box for filings to limit face-to-face interactions. If a party submits a filing by mail, the filing deadline is extended by five business days.

Additionally, if a document needs to be notarized, House Bill 196 authorizes video notarizations through December 31, 2021.

The current Order is effective until April 15, 2021, but the Chief Justice, in communication with state and local health officials, will continue to evaluate the evolving nature of the pandemic.