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Big changes, challenges on the horizon as North Carolina courts move to reopen

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As North Carolina begins to reopen, its courts must grapple with issues of social distancing and providing protective equipment and sanitation products to keep courthouses clean. (Image: Adobe Stock)

On any given week prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of people went in and out of the Wake County courthouse without worrying about the crowds they’d encounter in the building.

In courtrooms, defendants, attorneys, victims and public agency workers alike would squeeze into the pews as a judge conducted hearings on dockets that could drone on for hours. No one wore masks; no one compulsively sanitized their hands.

On June 1, courts will broaden their current limited opening, but it won’t look anything like pre-pandemic times. Officials are still in the throes of planning how to serve more members of the public while implementing best safety practices, but it’s no easy task.

“There’s no question that this is a tall order,” said Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman of balancing safety measures within a system that is so used to bringing together so many people.

There are a number of changes her office will make: Limiting the size of dockets, prioritizing the cases that need to be heard and identifying “compliance cases” that the office would normally dismiss, like registration citations, to more quickly remove them from the calendar.

Courthouse-wide in Wake County, there will be signs encouraging sick people to stay home and directing those present to stay socially distanced in queues and courtrooms. Visitors will be “strongly encouraged” to wear masks or face coverings. Freeman is working with courthouse officials, local attorneys and others to make the transition as seamless as possible.

North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley also announced guidance today in a new executive order for courthouses and courtrooms to prepare for the soft reopening in June. It’s one of many she’s issued since the start of the pandemic.

She said at a press conference today that half a dozen courts have already had to address known exposures to COVID-19; a number of people have fallen ill in the past week. It’s highlighted the need for a thoughtful and measured approach for the expansion of court operations, she said.

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Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley

Among other provisions, Beasley’s order specifies that no session of court can be scheduled if it would result in the public being crowded into courtrooms or waiting in close proximity without social distancing. Senior Resident Superior Court judges provide for courtroom seating, and must ensure all areas where lines form are to be marked with 6-foot intervals. They must also ensure that public areas of the courthouse are cleaned throughout the day and that hand sanitizer is provided for the public at every entrance and exit.

“Court is going to look different for a while,” Beasley said. “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.”

Beasley also ordered that jury trials be postponed until August while she and other courthouse officials identify safe practices to empanel them..

Freeman said Wake County still has work to do to be able to safely conduct those jury trials. She also said another part of the challenge for the courts is they must implement such a wide array of changes without additional resources or technology.

June may be a slow start, but Freeman wondered whether they would be able to effectively manage an increasing caseload in July and August, when a backlog of cases from March, April and May are rescheduled to be heard.

Beasley also highlighted that the judicial branch does not have “the power of the purse,” and said it would be relying on the legislature and on Gov. Roy Cooper to help with resources, including PPE and sanitation products to keep courthouses clean.

She said the system has made requests to the General Assembly for funding for masks and thermometers and additional assistance for staff, among other items. Assistance from lawmakers will be necessary to be able to expand operations safely.

Across the state in Buncombe County, Superior Court Clerk Steven Cogburn said the courthouse is implementing similar measures, along with a plan to take everyone’s temperature who enters the building. Individuals with a temperature of 100.4 or higher will be turned away;  the people they were there to see will be notified of the reason.

“We’re trying to do everything we can,” he said in a phone interview.

Cogburn expects there will be some lines with the temperature checks and said he hoped the public would be patient.

“Things will be a little bit clumsy for all of us, because we’re trying to do something we’ve never done before,” he said. “But we intend to protect everyone to the extent that we can.”

Buncombe officials are also discussing dividing days into multiple court sessions so that people are in the building for as little time as possible. They’re also working on a daily disinfectant plan for the entire courthouse.

Each employee currently has two masks (though they aren’t washable and can only be used for a short period of time) along with access to gloves if they need them. Cogburn said they are still “scrounging” for hand sanitizer. His office is currently working in staggered shifts, but he is hopeful they will be operating at full capacity by mid-June.

Durham County Superior Court Clerk Archie Smith said officials have just begun the planning process for a safe, gradual reopening, so a lot of details are still up in the air. There are plans  for social distancing and crowd control; furniture in courtrooms has been spaced out and marked to help the public know where they can sit and stand safely.

Smith has participated in a couple emergency hearings since the start of the pandemic, and he said officials have tried to be as “canny” as possible in everything they do.

The initial shock of the pandemic exhausted PPE supplies initially, but a community-based organization, AlertDurham, delivered handmade masks to the clerks. Smith also signed for several boxes of equipment from uniformed National Guard members, he said. “That was a new experience for me,” Smith  said, adding that he met them in the loading dock area of the courthouse to accept the shipment.

Since then, the Administrative Office of the Courts has also sent more PPE to prepare for June. Smith said the Durham courthouse ordered plexiglass for the clerk’s offices, and is awaiting that shipment.

They’ve been able to conduct some remote hearings online, but the computers in the clerk’s offices don’t have video or microphones, so it’s a challenge, Smith said.

“The notion of virtual courts is great, but poses difficulty with the limited technology,” he added.

Like Buncombe County, Smith’s staff is also working in staggered shifts for the time being so that if anyone contracts COVID-19, the spread of infection will hopefully be limited.  Ultimately, Smith is excited to welcome people back to the courthouse. He said his office feels better when they are engaged with and serving the public.

Freeman said she expects people will adjust quickly to the new normal. She’s personally been wearing a mask anytime she steps away from her desk for the past two weeks.

“It feels very natural now,” she said, adding that if she gets up without it, it feels kind of like when she doesn’t have her cellphone, “something’s missing.”