RALEIGH — Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued new emergency orders on May 21 about court operations across North Carolina that extend some filing deadlines, postpone jury trials and require in-person court operations to take place with some restrictions to ensure safety protocols.
“Court is going to look different for a while,” Beasley said in a statement. “Dockets will be smaller. Cases will be heard online. We’re going to have to socially distance in the courthouse. North Carolinians are resilient and resourceful, and we approach our challenges with a spirit of cooperation and innovation that I know will carry us through the challenging days ahead.”
Under the orders, some deadlines for filings and other required actions have been extended to July 31. Filing deadlines for criminal matters are extended until July 31. Filings due pursuant to statutes of limitation or repose are also extended until July 31. Filings and actions due in civil matters that had been previously extended are due June 1.
Beasley has also placed a number of restrictions on in-person proceedings to avoid crowded courtrooms and allow for social distancing. These restrictions include not allowing a session of court to be scheduled if it would result in the public being crowded into courtrooms or waiting in close proximity without social distancing. Additionally, senior resident Superior Court judges are directed to have courtroom seating and all areas where lines form marked with six-foot intervals.
According to 24th Judicial District Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Gary M. Gavenus, in-person proceedings in criminal matters shall be limited to pleas, probation violations and some necessary hearings that the court determines can be heard in-person. In-person proceedings in civil matters shall be limited to motions and some bench trials if the court determines that bench trials can be heard in compliance with health and safety standards.
Beasley also ordered that no jury trials will be held until August while the court system works to identify alternatives to allow those trials to be safely conducted. Jury trials are postponed through at least the end of July.
A May 14 administrative order entered by 24th Judicial District Chief District Court Judge Ted McEntire states that the court “strongly encourages” the use of face masks or coverings of the nose and mouth while in the court room — including both attorneys and defendants.
The order also notes that court proceedings are open to the public unless closed by order, but reduced seating for social distancing means priority seating will be given to defendants, alleged victims and witnesses. Other spectators may be asked to leave if additional seating is necessary, according to McEntire’s order.
Courts must also ensure that public areas of the courthouse are cleaned throughout the day and that hand sanitizer is provided at every entrance and exit, according to Beasley.
Local courts are required to have seating and waiting areas clearly marked in six-foot intervals, establish maximum occupancies for courtrooms and ensure that hand sanitizer and cleaning services are provided. Many of these steps will require cooperation and support from county governments who own and manage the court facilities, stated the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.
Any testimony will be taken from the jury box rather than the witness chair, according to Gavenus. All oaths shall be by affirmation. Additionally, social distancing of a minimum of six feet will be “strictly enforced” at counsel tables.
Senior resident Superior Court judges are also directed to assess local court facilities to determine whether juries can be convened with social distancing. If not, they must secure alternate facilities for jury trials, Beasley stated in her order.
Gavenus stated that all individuals entering the courtroom shall be required to sign an attendance sheet in addition to requiring all individuals to wear a mask or facial covering, unless a verified health condition prevents the individual from wearing one.
Beasley’s orders also include several measures to limit in-person contact between the public and the staff of local clerk of court offices. Filings by mail are encouraged and clerks may require filings be dropped off rather than submitted face-to-face at a service counter. Access to public records must be provided, but clerks may require appointments and limit hours. To encourage filing by mail, a five-day grace period will be provided for documents delivered by mail. A secure, physical drop box for filings may be used.
In addition, the Supreme Court of North Carolina entered an order on May 14 that made changes to several rules in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These changes include the publishing of court calendars with less advanced notice. Attorneys may designate additional secured leave from court. Additionally, judges will receive continuing education credit for online courses.
Information about specific county operations is available on the court system’s website at NCcourts.gov. The public can use online tools on the website to check for upcoming court dates, sign up for court date reminders and pay or dismiss traffic tickets.
For a traffic ticket or infraction, visit www.nccourts.org/services and select the Citation Services option. Many citations can be reduced and paid online, according to District Attorney Seth Banks. To stay up-to-date on your court matters, sign up for text and email reminders at www.nccourts.gov/services and select the Court Date Notifications option.
Banks stated on May 22 that as courts continue to expand operations, his office is working to ensure that the needs of the public are met while striving to keep the public safe.
Banks requested that if community members do not have an attorney that they call before coming into the courthouse on their assigned court date. If the community member does have an attorney, they are urged to contact their attorney before coming to court.
For more information, call the court clerk’s office or district attorney’s office in Avery, Madison, Mitchell, Watauga and Yancey counties. The district attorney’s office in Watauga can be contacted at (828) 268-6610, and the county clerk’s office at (828) 268-6600.
For a list of orders from Beasley and the Supreme Court of North Carolina, visit the continuously updated COVID-19 announcement page. The public is encouraged to visit NCcourts.gov to find answers to frequently asked questions before calling the local courthouse.
Announcements from local counties about changes to court operations can be found on the county page as well as the closings and advisories page. The public may also visit the Judicial Branch Facebook page and Twitter account to access information related to the coronavirus health concern.