By Anne Blythe

North Carolina’s Chief Justice Cheri Beasley ordered changes to the state’s court system that will begin March 16 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

shows a smiling African American woman
NC Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. Photo courtesy: NC Judicial Branch

In an attempt to balance the need to protect the public from potential exposure to COVID-19 and due process and constitutional rights, Beasley has directed the courts across the state to postpone most of the thousands of cases in the pipeline for 30 days.

The decision came the day after Gov. Roy Cooper issued guidelines for the cancellation of all gatherings with more than 100 people.

“Today’s order will allow us to drastically reduce the exposure caused by crowded sessions of court, which often bring hundreds of people at a time into our courthouses,” Beasley said in a statement.

As part of the balancing act, though, Beasley has called for some exceptions. They include:

  • First appearances before a judge in criminal proceedings;
  • Bond hearings held to determine if a defendant must remain incarcerated while awaiting trial;
  • Hearings in which indigent defendants are appointed counsel;
  • Probation hearings;
  • Probable cause hearings; and
  • Hearings to obtain orders for emergency relief, child custody, involuntary or civil commitments, protection from domestic violence and temporary restraint, and for some juvenile court proceedings.

Trials in which juries already have been empaneled will not be included in the delay, nor are presently empaneled grand juries.

Senior resident court judges across the state, the chief business court judge and chief district court judges have been given some leniency to hold some proceedings as long as they are conducted in ways that protect the health and safety of all involved.

Though the courthouses across the state will remain open, signs will be telling anyone who has been exposed or likely has been exposed to COVID-19 not to enter.

That includes:

  • Anyone who has traveled to China, South Korea, Japan, Italy or Iran within the previous 14 days;
  • Individuals who have been directed to quarantine, isolate or self-monitor for the COVID-19 virus;
  • Anyone who has been diagnosed with the disease or lives with or has been in close contact with individuals in any of the categories listed.

“Our state courts play a vital role in protecting the public health and safety,” Beasley said at a news conference Friday morning. “We settle disputes civilly and promote healthy, secure communities by administering fair and impartial justice accessible to all. Unfortunately in the moment we are facing we must weigh the benefits of our court services against the need to protect North Carolina against exposure to coronavirus.”

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.

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