CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Supreme Court and the Southern District of West Virginia federal court are making protocol changes due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The courts are following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued interim guidance recommending that all employers consider how best to decrease the spread of COVID-19, including a plan to minimize exposure between employees and the public," the March 13 general order from the district court states.
The Supreme Court postponed arguments scheduled for March 17 and 18. They have not yet determined a new date to hear arguments yet. There were a total of six cases scheduled for those days — three on each day.
The Supreme Court also postponed two out-of Charleston argument dockets scheduled for this spring. Those arguments included March 18th's Legal Advancement for West Virginia Students (LAWS) docket in Braxton County to which high school students from Braxton, Clay, Gilmer and Webster counties were invited. The court decided to postpone that trip until the fall.
The second postponed out-of-Charleston docket was scheduled for March 25 at the West Virginia University College of Law, also involving LAWS.
On March 12, the Supreme Court announced a protocol addressing COVID-19 concerns.
"We want to keep courts open, but we want to do all we can to keep people safe," Chief Justice Tim Armstead said in a press release. "In addition to the protocol for employees, the Court also is issuing guidance intended to ensure the safety of litigants and the public."
The protocol encourages judicial officers to postpone proceedings that are not time-sensitive, use available technology such as conference calls and video conferencing to minimize person-to-person contact and schedule dockets to limit the number of people gathering in large numbers.
The court also sent notices to the State Bar and is posting notices in courthouses that will give directions to parties, attorneys, witnesses, jurors and the public.
Special sick leave will be provided under certain qualifying conditions for judicial employees. Out-of-state travel is temporarily canceled except in special circumstances and must be approved by the administrative director.
In the Southern District of West Virginia federal court, Chief Judge Thomas E. Johnston entered an order March 13 directing that all civil and criminal jury trials in the Southern District are continued pending further order from the court; all grand jury proceedings in the district are continued pending further order from the court; and with regard to criminal matters, the time period of continuances implemented by the order will be excluded under the Speedy Trial Act.
The court order notes that because West Virginia has a relatively elderly population and high incidence of other medical conditions, that can make individuals more vulnerable to the virus.
The courthouses will continue to remain open and staff will still be in the Clerk's Office and be available to receive mail. Electronic filings can still be made through the CM/ECF system.
The court will either vacate or modify the order no later than March 27.
The World Health Organization characterized the outbreak as a pandemic March 11. There are currently 1,268 confirmed cases in the United States. West Virginia does not have any confirmed cases.
West Virginia has been working toward minimizing contact between the public, canceling events, closing public schools indefinitely and moving universities to an online platform for several weeks.
COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person, according to the CDC. This means between people who are in close contact with one another—within about 6 feet—or through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
The CDC urges hand washing and practicing social distancing.