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COVID slows South Carolina’s courts—again


Efforts to keep the wheels of justice turning at full speed have been no match for COVID-19, which has caused South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty to halt all in-person hearings until further order.

Beatty’s latest decision follows an order he signed on Dec. 3 that halted jury trials. The newest orders stop all in-person hearings, with the exception of bond, bench warrant and emergency domestic abuse hearings. Remote hearings in some cases can continue.

“It is prudent to once again make changes to the operations of the circuit, family, probate, and master-in-equity courts for the protection of those who work within the courts, as well as those who use the courts,” Beatty wrote in the Jan. 6 order.  Beatty cited the state’s ongoing rise in positive test numbers and “the expectation by the medical community and experts that the number of positive cases will continue to increase in the near future.” 

While COVID-19 has slowed court operations throughout the country, South Carolina had been on the forefront of getting things back to normal as soon as possible. It was one of the first states to resume jury trials in August.

In the state’s first jury trial since the system-wide shutdown, Beatty sat in the back of a Laurens County courtroom in August as a man went on trial for murder related to a 2018 stabbing death, the Associated Press reports. In addition to masks being required, jurors were spread out, and a glass shield was placed around the witness stand. Just three spectators could sit in any one row, outside of the families of the defendant and the victim, the AP reported.

By many accounts, things went as well as could be expected, attorneys said. They were cautiously optimistic, particularly as it seemed that new COVID-19 cases were steadying. 

But others, like the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, warned in July that it was too early to resume jury trials, even as some in-person hearings had already resumed. And as the fall progressed, so did the pandemic, causing courthouses throughout the state to halt then resume in-person operations. Now, things have returned to the way they were in April.

Even as vaccines are now beginning to be distributed across the state and country, cases of COVID-19 continue to rise. As of Jan. 10, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control reported 323,855 confirmed cases since the pandemic began and 435 confirmed deaths. On that day alone, there were 3,667 newly confirmed new cases in the state.

By comparison, in September, the state was seeing an average of about 870 cases a day, down from the seven-day average peak of nearly 1,950 cases in mid-July, the AP reported.

Breen Stevens, the newly-installed president of the SCACDL, said that he doesn’t envy Beatty’s position and is confident that he and other Judicial Branch officials are doing what they can to balance the rights of defendants and victims with the safety of the public.

“The said irony is that it’s not like they failed in attempts to be careful in the initial re-openings,” Stevens said. “They put up Plexiglass walls. They had very strict rules on how many people could be there physically at the same time. They had social distancing rules, they had mask rules. In some places it worked and I’m guessing in some places it didn’t.”

Stevens said that there are several competing issues that are making things difficult right now. There are people who are in jail who can’t afford bonds, and others who are out on bond, but the pending charges are keeping them from moving on with their lives. And then there are the victims who are waiting for their matters to be resolved.

“The best thing we can do with whatever authority or ability we have is to keep a steady hand on the till and bring the ship home to port safely,” Stevens said.

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw


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