When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the nation in March, the wheels of justice in North and South Carolina courts came to an almost complete halt, and it was up to South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty and North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley to take the wheels.
As the leaders of their respective state’s courts, their orders directed how county courts would operate under unprecedented and almost untenable circumstances. For several months, North Carolina and South Carolina courts moved in the same direction, with jury trials stopped and in-person court operations severely limited. By most accounts, things went about as smoothly as possible in both states, or even better than expected. Technology played a huge part in that, as thousands of hearings were held through videoconferencing.
Now, though, the states are on two decidedly different tracks. As North Carolina postponed jury trials until at least October, South Carolina courts resumed them on a limited basis in August. Most recently, on Sept. 21, South Carolina Courts resumed full in-person operations, per Beatty’s orders, although judges still have the authority to hold hearings remotely if they so choose.
Beatty’s decision comes as some South Carolina judicial stakeholders, particularly prosecutors, are adamant that the wheels of justice now must shift back into high gear to ease the backlog of cases. Others, such as the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, have said that it isn’t safe to resume full operations.
North Carolina is the 9th most populated state in the country, with 10.9 million people, while South Carolina has a population of less than half of that, 5.1 million. As of Sept. 22, South Carolina has had 138,000 confirmed cases of COVID and 3,212 deaths. North Carolina has had 195,000 confirmed cases and 3,283 deaths.
Beatty declined to be interviewed by phone. Lawyers Weekly sent him questions about the court’s resuming operations, but a spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch said that he wouldn’t be able to respond to them by press time.
But in a Sept. 14 memo, Beatty said only attorneys, the parties, necessary witnesses, necessary court staff, and a limited number of members of the press will be allowed to appear during in-person hearings. They must be adequately staggered to accommodate social distancing, with hearings in each courtroom being held 20 at least minutes apart and conducted in a reasonably safe manner in accordance with established COVID-19 protocol.
Renee Elvis, clerk of court of Horry County, said that pre-COVID, her office summoned 350 people for each jury term. In the weeks ahead, it will summon up to 600 people. Many of them will be excused from serving on the jury, either because they are over 65 or don’t feel comfortable serving on a jury because of COVID.
“I have to have enough for a trial, but at the same time, I don’t want to put anybody at risk,” Elvis said. “I would rather call in more so I can excuse more. I can’t speak for the whole state, but in a county as big as Horry County, we are so backlogged, and the constitution gives folks the right to a speedy trial. These are just my thoughts, not of court administration or anybody else, but I feel like because the constitution tells us we have to give these folks a speedy trial, as long as we can come up with a way to do it safely, then it is an obligation to do that. And we are blessed enough that we have a big enough building where we can spread people out.”
On the same day that South Carolina courts resumed full operations, there was some good news: The number of reported COVID cases dropped to under 1,000 in South Carolina for the 14 consecutive days, the longest stretch of under-1,000 new cases since the virus peaked. David Wolf, president of the Charleston County Bar Association, said that while opinions naturally differ among the association’s more than 2,000 members, he knows that courthouse staff in Charleston County have worked hard to comply with the order to resume full operations in as safe a manner as possible.
“If I got a notice of a hearing or trial, I would be there, even though I have a father who is of an advanced age and has an underlying condition, so I try to be mindful of when I can visit him,” Wolf said. “But I would come to the courthouse and do what I needed to do. I just want people to be safe.”
In North Carolina, Beasley said that it’s simply not yet the right time to resume full court operations, pointing out that in the past few weeks, several courthouses have closed because court staff have tested positive for COVID-19. Beasley is awaiting reports from the state’s senior resident superior court judges that are due by Sept. 30 regarding their safety plans for resuming jury trials. The original deadline was Sept. 1, but Beasley said the judges needed more time to compile them.
Beasley said that there are still many unanswered questions, such as what would happen if a juror tested positive in the midst of a trial.
“Does that mean [there would be] a mistrial?” Beasley said. “Is there a likelihood that other people in the courtroom would contract COVID? We have to make sure we have the right accommodations so people are safe.”
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw