Court system adjusting to order put into place due to COVID-19

UPDATE:  Editor’s note:  This story was published before the West Virginia Supreme Court issued an Administrative Order declaring a Judicial Emergency in all 55 counties in West Virginia late Sunday evening.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tim Armstead understands that it’s been an adjustment for many courts around the state following the order he put into place last week due to the coronavirus.

Armstead ordered the suspension of all criminal trials and jury orientations through April 10 unless a defendant’s right to a speedy trial would be violated with the postponement. It comes because of public safety concerns with the virus as the CDC has limited social gatherings.

He told MetroNews the state Supreme Court has fielded many questions around the state and provided assistance, as many courts turn to technology to limit one-on-one contact.

Justice Tim Armstead

“We’ve waived some rules that would have otherwise made it more difficult to use that type of technology,” Armstead said.

“We’ve waived those rules so judges have more ability to use technology and conduct certain hearings by video or by telephone.”

Armstead emphasized that even with the order, much of the discretion with proceeding with hearings and dockets have fallen with the individual judge.

The order does allow for emergency hearings in abuse and neglect cases, domestic violence petitions and hearings for mental hygiene petitions. Time-sensitive criminal arraignments and preliminary hearings will also continue in county magistrate courts, per the judge.

“We set forward some certain circumstances where we believe that there would be a need to proceed immediately, but we’ve also given the judges the discretion to proceed in those cases where they feel that there is a need,” Armstead said.

The court system was faced with a new challenge Saturday when it was learned an employee in the Kanawha County judicial system tested positive for coronavirus. In a statement, the Court said would all it could to assist Kanawha County in the response.

The Kanawha County Commission has closed its judicial building to public access.

The original order is set through April 10 and Armstead said if they are able to lift, they will lift. He’s not sure that will be the case but does not believe this would create a backlog within the court system.

“Judges throughout the state are very good at managing their dockets and ensuring workflow proceeds efficiently,” Armstead said. “I believe they will have certain matters that because of the time-sensitivity of them and the nature of them, they will continue to do.

“Some of the others that will be delayed, they can put those back into the docket as they are permitted to do so.”

Close to April 10, Armstead said he will reevaluate the situation with COVID-19 and speak with health officials.

“We know there are certain safeguards to take at this point,” he said.

“We want to take whatever safeguards are necessary to keep litigants, jurors, witnesses, the general public, the judges, the staff all healthy and give them opportunities to take the steps that are being suggested by our healthcare professionals.”

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