CHARLESTON – West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Tim Armstead has directed state courts to suspend all but emergency proceedings through April 10 in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Armstead filed the court order March 16. It says all civil and criminal trials and jury orientations should be postponed.
“We are attempting to address the need to proceed with the critical work of our court system while also addressing the need to protect public safety,” Armstead told judicial officers during a Skype session March 16. “Any proceedings that either can be continued or that legally and technically can be held via telephone or video should be addressed in that manner so we can keep as many people outside of group settings as possible.
“With the governor recommending that certain steps be taken, we want to make sure we are complying with those steps as well as those measures we believe are necessary to address specific and unique issues.
The only exception to the suspension would be a trial where a criminal defendant’s speedy trial rights may preclude the postponement. Emergency hearings arising from abuse and neglect petitions, domestic violence protective order petitions, mental hygiene petitions, and criminal arraignments and preliminary hearings with statutory time requirements still can be held at the discretion of the presiding judge.
Those emergency hearings should be held using technology to avoid person-to-person contact, if possible. Circuit clerk’s offices and judicial offices throughout West Virginia where public access has been restricted should remain available by phone and e-mail and have drop boxes for court filings. There is a drop box for filings at the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia Clerk’s Office and the office will remain open.
All cases scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court on March 17, 18, 24 and 25 will be rescheduled.
The Supreme Court order issued supplements the protocol issued March 12. That protocol and notices posted in courthouses will remain in effect to give directions to parties, attorneys, witnesses, jurors and the public.
“The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has great confidence in the ability of our judges and court staff to handle these charges professionally,” Armstead told circuit judges, family court judges and magistrates during the Skype call. “This is an ever changing situation.
“It is likely we will issue additional or revised protocols.”
In the previous protocol, the state Supreme Court said it was following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"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.
"We want to keep courts open, but we want to do all we can to keep people safe," Armstead said then. "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.
While state courts remain open, the court said it could temporarily close some courts if necessary to combat the virus.
“Judges and judicial personnel should refrain from any action that may inflame the public’s fears or contradict federal or state guidance on the situation,” the protocol procedures state. “Judges and judicial officials are encouraged to be flexible and proactive in managing their dockets if community spread occurs.
“Possible methods to mitigate the spread of the disease include: Allowing for telephonic hearings, if possible; Reviewing docket and postponing non-critical and/or time sensitive matters; Encouraging the use of video conferencing systems for appearances by those incarcerated, if appropriate, or Scheduling docket matters to reduce the need for a large number of individuals to wait in the courtroom or public areas for their case to be called.”
Also, the court recommends that parties, attorneys, witnesses and jurors should not come to court if they have a fever or other symptoms or if they have been directly exposed to a confirmed case of the disease.
“If a party, attorney, witness, or juror is adversely impacted by community efforts to stop the disease, such as extended school closures, the court system should make efforts to reasonably accommodate the individual to support public health efforts,” the protocol states. “Judicial officers should favorably consider requests for extensions in time, continuances or modified schedules if the circumstances warrant granting the request. The court system must be mindful of the undue burden public health efforts may create, and must support those efforts by accommodating individual hardships, if possible. …
“Individuals that fraudulently use public health efforts to impact court proceedings for personal gain or to avoid a legal obligation may be subject to civil or criminal contempt proceedings and penalties and/or sanctions. Attorneys violating the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct may be subject to referral to the West Virginia Office of Disciplinary Counsel.”