Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons on March 16 suspended all “non-essential, non-emergency” court proceedings in all circuit and district courts to April 6. On Friday, the court unanimously extended the order to April 26.
The extension stipulates that courtroom proceedings that cannot be continued will have attendance limited to attorneys, parties to the case, necessary witnesses and the press. In the case of jury trials that cannot be continued, judges will excuse or postpone jury service for jurors who are ill, caring for someone ill or who are in a Centers for Disease Control-defined high-risk category.
Orientations for new jurors have also been suspended under Lemons’ order, and attorneys are required to use electronic filings if available.
When a defendant fails to appear in court, judges will now issue summonses instead of capias warrants.
Lemons also ordered that people with legitimate court business who are ill, caring for someone ill or who are in a Centers for Disease Control-defined high-risk category to call local court clerks or court personnel to ask for an “appropriate accommodation.”
Wise County and Norton Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III said the order and concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic have already delayed the county’s regular monthly grand jury from March and April until at least May.
Slemp said his office has told all defense attorneys that prosecutors will be taking a “generous approach to bond release” for persons charged with nonviolent misdemeanors or felonies if their cases were set during the emergency order period.
“The purpose for this is so that folks don’t sit in jail in Duffield without ever getting a trial and also so that those cases that are set for trial or hearing can be heard safely,” Slemp said.
Cases considered emergency ones under the Supreme Court order have been proceeding in the courthouse, however, Slemp said. Those cases involve inmates at the Duffield Regional Jail.
Along with the state Supreme Court’s continuance of court cases and hearings into late April, many normal court hearings have turned to remote technology.
“The judges have been doing video arraignments and video bond hearings too,” Slemp said. “It has helped ensure that the transport of defendants to the courthouse are not exposed to the virus.”