CHARLESTON – State courts across West Virginia will begin a gradual return to normal on May 18.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tim Armstead issued a new order and protocols May 6 to guide judges, attorneys and parties through the process of stepping out of Coronavirus pandemic procedures put in place in mid-March.
“The court recognizes that, even though the governor has relaxed containment efforts, it will be many more months before society returns to some of its pre-pandemic practices,” the Resumption of Operations Order states.
The court says the protocols are designed to mitigate risks associated with a gradual return to normal, in-person court functions and generally are consistent with federal and state public health guidelines.
Armstead said he and the other justices are pleased this gradual approach has been developed.
“Our courts have been working through this crisis,” he told The West Virginia Record. “That meant doing a lot of the matters remotely. We didn’t shut the doors to the courts. But, and this holds especially true for trials, being able to get back in the courtrooms will get a lot more matters moving. We are pleased but cautious as we move forward.
“Hopefully, things will continue to get better regarding the Coronavirus and the pandemic. But, if something does happen, even in a particular county, we have the flexibility to step back. We’re treating current hot spot counties differently because we want to make sure we can address those areas where there are more cases (of the virus). But, this gives our judges, attorneys and parties a plan moving forward.”
Armstead also said it’s important to know judges have been given a great deal of flexibility in the new plan.
“For parties who may be vulnerable to COVID-19, this gives the judge flexibility to deal with those issues on an individual basis and make accommodations when necessary,” Armstead said. “We want to be safe.
“Every two weeks, we will add a different type of proceeding.”
The protocols, setting minimum statewide standards, generally allow for returns to normal court operations in phases beginning as early as May 18 with sanitization, physical distancing and personal protection, where appropriate.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tim Armstead said it will be up to local officials to determine specifics based on community conditions. The protocols allow for the return to normal court operations with sanitization, physical distancing and personal protection.
The May 18 startup date is for what the court classifies as “green counties,” which are ones not classified as COVID-19 hot spots by the state Department of Health and Human Resources. In those counties, grand jury proceedings can begin June 15, and jury trials can resume June 29.
As of May 7, there are five counties listed as hot spots by the DHHR. They are Berkeley, Harrison, Jefferson, Marion and Monongalia counties. For those counties, court proceedings will continue when possible via video or teleconference. Employees in those courts also will continue to work remotely, and jurors won’t be called until the counties no longer are listed as hot spots.
In the “green counties,” court employees can return to work starting May 18 but must comply with social distancing measures, disinfecting common work areas, wearing masks and using remote technology when possible.
Attorneys, litigants and witnesses must wear masks when appearing in court.
“This puts in place some pretty strict protocols so people can feel safe when they enter a courtroom,” Armstead said. “With the masks, we have encouraged attorneys to do that. And, we’re asking them to ensure their clients wear a mask as well.
“Overall, we’re trying to balance keeping courts moving and doing the constitutional work we’re charged with doing while also doing it in a safe way. It’s a difficult task to balance those two, and we’ll continue to monitor the situation and make change as needed.”
Another change is that judicial offers are now prohibited from performing “call dockets” where multiple matters are scheduled for a set time, and attorneys and litigants are required to wait for the court to call their case. Instead, judicial officers now will schedule their docket to allow for limited traffic in the court areas at any given time.
“Judicial officers should mark safe distances between seating areas in the courtroom,” the protocol states. “One possible solution would be for attorneys and parties to wait in their cars, and the judicial assistant could call and notify them when their case is ‘next up’ on the docket.”
“To ensure we don’t have large crowds, we have to stop doing that,” Armstead said. “And, it’s difficult to do because you don’t know how long a particular case is going to take. But, as we suggested in the protocols, judges may be able to have parties stay in their cars and have someone text them when it’s their time to appear.
“I have a lot of confidence in our judges. They’ve been innovative and creative throughout this process. We’re relying on them to continue to do that, and I am sure they will.”
And, Armstead said the Supreme Court will continue to lead by example on that front.
“We’re going to do the same thing when we resume in-person arguments,” he said. “Rather than calling everyone at the same time for arguments, we’re going to stagger them out and schedule them or every 20 or 30 minutes depending on what type of cases they are.”
Armstead said court deadlines that have been stayed during the pandemic are being staggered.
“We did that so we won’t have everybody rushing to get things filed all in one day,” he said. “We’re trying to be thoughtful of the litigants, attorneys and judges.”