Forsyth County’s court system is starting to reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down more than a year ago creating a huge backlog of criminal and civil cases.
Court officials are working now to get things back on track, but it’s not easy. Even with more people getting vaccinated, courtrooms, for now, still have to maintain COVID-19 safety protocols. That means requiring people to wear masks inside the Forsyth County Hall of Justice and making sure people are physically distanced from each other.
Courtroom benches have blue tape, marking where people can sit to maintain a 6-foot distance. Signs are plastered on courtroom doors, telling those who enter exactly what the capacity is. In many courtrooms, a Plexiglas shield surrounds the judge’s bench, and wood-framed Plexiglas separates a criminal defense attorney from the client at a single table.
Those are some of the changes people who come to the courtroom have seen and will continue to see.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Todd Burke said he doesn’t expect a return to normalcy anytime soon.
“I know some corporations back in April (2020)…they told their employees they would not be reporting until January 2022,” he said.
Until then, he said courts will have to operate differently.
For much of last year, most in-person hearings were canceled. At some points in the last year, then-Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued orders limiting in-person hearings to ones that had to be held, such as involuntary commitments, and encouraging remote hearings using the video-conferencing program WebEx.
One of the biggest impacts is that Forsyth County hasn’t had a jury trial in more than a year. While some counties, including Guilford, have started having trials, Forsyth hasn’t.
Burke said he is monitoring the number of COVID-19 cases in Forsyth before deciding when to start jury trials. Currently, jury trials are scheduled to start in July. Local court officials have discretion on when to start jury trials.
Even with people getting vaccinated, Burke said people still need to be vigilant.
But the delay in jury trials has an impact.
“We’re having this tsunami of cases that will come on us like a tidal wave,” said Paul James, Forsyth County’s chief public defender. “We haven’t had a jury trial since March of last year.”
And when jury trials do come back, they won’t be done like they were done pre-COVID-19. Social-distancing requirements mean that few people can be in a courtroom at one time.
Before COVID-19, there might have been several jury trials going on at once in Forsyth Superior Court. Now, jury trials will likely be limited to one a week.
It will also take awhile to build up to more complicated cases such as those involving murder that might take weeks to try. Instead, low-level felonies will likely be the first up for trial.
James said having jury trials will also be complicated by the fact that some people will remain concerned about COVID-19. Some people won’t respond to a jury summons or they won’t be able to serve on juries because they might be high risk for getting severe complications from COVID-19.
No matter what, it may take years to resolve some cases because of the backlog.
Beyond jury trials, there are other things that court officials are dealing with.
Many people get confused about court dates because of court closures, and court officials are trying to keep too many people from coming to the courthouse.
Before, district courtrooms would be crowded. Dockets would be several pages long, and people would wait hours before their case was called.
Court officials have now started what is known as Advise Court. It is on the main floor of the courthouse. The court is designed for people who are making their first appearance in court for mostly traffic infractions or misdemeanors. They get arraigned and get information about how to get legal representation.
Specific times are slotted for defendants to come to district court to resolve their cases.
Chief District Judge Lisa Menefee said one of the big challenges is simply finding the best ways to communicate with the public.
That means making sure people who have to attend a hearing remotely have the technology to do so, she said.
She said her priority has been striking a balance between protecting the health of everyone and maintaining access to the judicial process.
Menefee said she has worked with other court officials, including Assistant District Attorney Lizmar Bosques, about how best to achieve that balance.
“We are meeting continuously to try to get word out to the community,” she said.
James Quander, a criminal defense attorney, said his focus was sustaining the law firm that he co-owns with Stacey Rubain.
Now, he is focusing on making sure his clients’ cases are handled the right way and that he communicates with his clients about what is happening with their cases.
He doesn’t expect things to slow down again.
“I think we decided we’re going to open court … we’re never closing down.”
James said court officials have done the best they can to manage the situation.
“Everyone is trying really hard,” he said.