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Task force wrestling with COVID-19 and the courthouse

A group of North Carolina Judicial Branch officials has spent the past several weeks grappling with the complexities that the state’s court system will face beginning June 1, as courthouses begin transitioning back to full operations in the third month of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s one thing that the 16 members of the Judicial Branch’s COVID-19 Task Force know for sure–the day-to-day operations of the courts will be vastly different from than they were before.

“When we emerge from the current pandemic, we are going to be living in a different world,” said Don Bridges, senior resident superior court judge for Cleveland and Lincoln counties, who is co-chairing the task force with Jay Corpening, chief district court judge for New Hanover and Pender counties. “We are going to be doing things in a different method from what we have done in the past.”

Bridges made the comment May 13 as the committee held a two-hour meeting via Webex. The task force is divided into groups to deal with specific issues such as safety and technology, and it will soon turn over its recommendations to North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who said the same day that she planned on issuing additional orders on court operations in the following week or two.

“Contrary to a good bit of public opinion, courts are not closed,” Bridges said. “We are operating under a different schedule, but we are open, and the whole mission of this group is to work on the blueprint for how we move from being open on that limited basis to ramping up to our full operation of taking care of business as fully as we have in the past. Maybe not in the same way, but eventually to be in operation as fully as we were before this came about.”

In the meantime, the clock is ticking, and committee members said that time is of the essence in making sure that the transition runs smoothly, with the health and safety of court officials and the public paramount.

Jennifer Hargo, a public defender in New Hanover and Pender counties, said that during a recent court session she noticed that the courtroom was full of people who were wearing masks. Other times, however, “no one seems to be accepting the responsibility they have to keep others safe.”

Patrick Weede, a Wake County attorney, questioned whether the courts will have masks available for members of the public who aren’t wearing one.

“My county provided me with a box of 50 masks about four weeks ago, and told me I had to make it last,” Corpening said. On the other hand, Gaston County provided its chief district court with thousands of masks.

“But when you think about courthouse traffic in a day, several thousand may last a day or two,” Corpening said.

While court officials are in the process of measuring courtrooms to provide six-foot spaces between people and adjusting courtroom capacity, there’s still the matter of how to keep people safely distanced in other common areas of the courthouses, such as the corridors and clerk of courts’ windows.

Other logistical issues include the sharing of the plastic bowls that people drop their pocket items in as they go through courthouse security to calendar calls–the days of people packing courtrooms at 9 a.m. and waiting for hours to have their cases called are likely over. Weede said Wake County Superior Court plans to stagger calls throughout the days, assigning people times at which to arrive for their cases.

And Wayland Sermons, senior resident superior court judge for Beaufort, Hyde, Martin, Washington, and Tyrrell counties, said cases will definitely be called.

“What I’m hearing from all of the lawyers is that all the defendants think there is no need for them to have to agree to come to court, because they will never get to a jury trial this year, and witnesses will fade away and these charges will eventually be dismissed” Sermons said. “The message needs to be, ‘We are open, your case will be called, the witnesses will be available and you have to answer for it at some point and this plea bargain isn’t going to get better.’”

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw

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